2011/12/03

US Internet surfers often just looking for fun: study

SAN FRANCISCO, December  2, 2011 (AFP) - While the Internet might be a budding repository of the world's knowledge, most Americans go online just for kicks, according to a study released on Friday.

On any given day, 53 percent of the folks in the United States between the ages of 18 and 29 go online to have fun or to simply pass the time, the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project report found.

The percentage jumped to 81 when people in that age bracket were asked if they turned to the Internet purely for diversion at least occasionally.

When results for all ages were combined, it was determined that 58 percent of US adults tend to fritter away time online at one point or another.

An "upsurge" in the use of the Internet as a distraction from the real world coincided with a rise in broadband connectivity that makes streaming video more alluring and to a boom in social networking, according to the researchers.

"If they have broadband, if they are online video consumers, if they use social media of any kind -- especially social networking sites -- they are much more likely than others to go online to pass the time," the study concluded.

The findings, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points, were based on a survey in August of 2,260 adults.

Facebook to hire 'thousands' over next year

NEW YORK, December  2, 2011 (AFP) - Facebook said Friday that it plans to hire thousands of employees over the next year and add an engineering team to its office in New York.

"We will hire as many high quality engineers as we can here in New York,"    Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg told reporters at an event also attended by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"We're going to grow as quickly as we can in New York," Sandberg said.

She said Facebook would also be adding engineers at its Palo Alto, California, headquarters and in Seattle in addition to New York.
An engineering team in New York would be the company's first outside of the West Coast.

Facebook, which has more than 800 million members and is expected to go public next year, currently employs some 3,000 people
Sandberg said Facebook had plans to dramatically expand its overall workforce.

"We will be adding thousands of employees in the next year," she said.

Facebook currently has around 100 employees in its New York offices. Most of them work in marketing and recruiting.

Sandberg declined to say how exactly many people Facebook planned to employ in New York. But she said the company will probably need more office space.

Facebook currently has an office on Madison Avenue.

Google's Chrome Web browser challenging Firefox

SAN FRANCISCO, December  2, 2011 (AFP) - Google's Chrome Web browser is gaining ground on Firefox, and according to one industry tracker may even have eclipsed its open-source rival in the global market.

Chrome was the world's second favorite Web browsing program in November, bumping Firefox from that position for the first month ever, according to StatCounter Global Stats.

Google's Chrome had a 25.69 percent share of online browsing last month compared to 25.23 percent for Firefox, according to StatCounter. Firefox is managed by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) remained the dominant Web browser with 40.63 percent of the global market, the findings indicated.

"We can look forward to a fascinating battle between Microsoft and Google as the pace of growth of Chrome suggests that it will become a real rival to Internet Explorer globally," said StatCounter chief executive Aodhan Cullen.

However, Internet metrics firm Net Applications on Friday reported that Firefox still clung to second place in the browser market although Chrome has steadily narrowed the gap through the year and was closing in.

Firefox was losing ground in the United States but held onto second place here with 20.09 percent of the market compared to Chrome's 10.89 percent, according to StatCounter.

IE reportedly handled 50.66 percent of US Internet browsing.


2011/12/02

NYTimes.com friends Facebook in revamp

WASHINGTON, December  1, 2011 (AFP) - In a bid to elevate the debate, The New York Times is revamping reader comments on its website and joining a growing number of US newspapers in integrating Facebook into its commenting system.

Jill Abramson, who took over as executive editor of the Times in June, announced the changes on NYTimes.com and in a note to readers in Thursday's edition of the newspaper.

The "enhancements" to the comment system are intended to "improve the community experience across NYTimes.com," which receives nearly 50 million unique visitors a month, Abramson said.

US newspapers have long debated how to bring greater civility to their comments forums, which are frequently populated by insults and off-topic ramblings by "comment trolls" cloaked in anonymity.

The new commenting system at the Times creates a category of "Trusted Commenters" -- NYTimes.com readers with a history of "posting outstanding comments."

The Times said trusted commenters will be allowed to submit comments on news articles and blog posts on NYTimes.com without moderation.

Trusted commenter status will be offered by invitation only and to be granted the privilege a reader must agree to connect their NYTimes.com commenting profile with their Facebook account.

The Times said the name obtained from a Facebook profile will be used as the display name on a trusted commenter's NYTimes.com commenting profile along with their photo.

Facebook requires its more than 800 million members to use their real names and a number of US newspapers have begun using a comment platform built by the social network in an effort to improve the conversation on their sites.

"We have found that people who use their names carry on more engaging, respectful conversations," the Times said.

NYTimes.com commenters can still choose to remain anonymous but their posts will be screened first by moderators for personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity or other violations of the newspaper's policies.

The New York Times is using Facebook profiles for trusted commenters only but some major US newspapers have gone even further, only allowing comments from readers who link to their Facebook accounts.

Among the US newspaper publishers using the Facebook platform for comments is Gannett, the largest US newspaper chain and the publisher of USA Today.

Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Boston's Northeastern University, said the comments revamp by the Times should help encourage more "civil and substantive conversation."

"Comments have been one of the great, you almost might say, unexploited ways that news organizations can build communities with their users," Kennedy told AFP. "Way too many news organizations don't take comments seriously and just kind of treat them like the nuthouse.

"You go to any newspaper website that does not take comments seriously and it's a cesspool," he said. "You end up with just scores of anonymous and pseudonymous commentators, many of them the same people over and over again, engaging in hate speech or racist speech."

Kennedy said some Times readers may be wary about the integration with Facebook but the social network "does bring some things to the table that you almost can't get anywhere else and that is they require real names.

"People are accustomed to behaving a certain way on Facebook," he said. "It is a community. It seems to be very different from the anonymous, anti-social behavior that we often see in newspaper comments."

Kennedy said a case could be made for allowing anonymous comments and cited an example of someone who could potentially get in trouble with their employer if they are identified.

"But we don't allow anonymous letters to the editor in the paper," he said. "There's an argument to be made that we shouldn't be treating online comments any differently."

YouTube remake spotlights TV-style channels

SAN BRUNO, December  2, 2011 (AFP) - YouTube on Thursday unveiled a major redesign that showcases television-style channels and promises slicker integration with other Google online properties.

"We are trying hard to marry the best of TV and the best of online," YouTube vice president of product development Shishir Mehrotra said while providing an early glimpse of the changes at the company's offices in San Bruno.

"The term 'online video' is about to disappear as video becomes available to every device," Mehrotra said.

To demonstrate the point, group product manager Shiva Rajaraman demonstrated a YouTube application that makes the website's videos viewable on Microsoft's Xbox 360 videogame consoles connected to the Internet.

The new YouTube home page features channels created by anyone from self-styled video lovers to professional television or movie studios.

A side panel provides YouTube users easy tools to find channels tailored to interests and then "pin" favorites to stay tuned into new offerings.

YouTube provides recommendations based on videos people watch or like.

"The layout is a lot easier on the eyes and the feed is pretty awesome," said DeStorm Power, a singer and songwriter who has risen to stardom on YouTube, where his channel has more than 1.16 million subscribers.

New YouTube pages makes it easy to synch channel updates to subscribers' Twitter, Facebook or Google+ social network accounts, he noted.

"Being able to take my career into my own hands and build the kind of following I have on YouTube has been amazing," DeStorm said while showing off a new page layout that put fresh works center stage.

The Google-owned service built in templates that can be used by video makers or people who create channels centered on what they consider worth watching.

"We think curators are going to be great for organizing this massive amount of content YouTube has," said product manager A.J. Crane. "We are trying to make everyone an effective programmer on YouTube."

YouTube even changed its well-known logo to be more modern and closer in style to those used at other Google services.

The redesign is being rolled out with an eye toward making YouTube look and work better on all Internet-linked devices from smartphones and tablets to television sets.

"This is really the largest redesign and largest launch in YouTube's history," said group product manager Noam Lovinsky.

"As we carry the redesign across the site and all kinds of devices it really changes the game for content providers," Lovinsky said. 
"Everyone is going to be vying for that precious spot on the home page."

The home page lets people switch channels television-style instead of hunting for video clip after clip.

"We've had channels around on YouTube for a while, but with this redesign we are bringing them to the forefront," said product manager Kurt Williams.

The new design sets the stage for film or television studios to create pay channels, a step that YouTube declined to dismiss or discuss.

YouTube is also dabbling with a new revenue model in which viewers get can skip ads, and advertisers only pay for promotional snippets people watched.

The service is testing "True View" advertising inspired by a trend toward ad clips being among top-watched videos.

"Before people were forced to watch ads and now people are actually seeking out these videos," said Lane Shackleton of the YouTube ad monetization team.

"This is a really interesting phenomenon," he continued. "Advertisers intuitively understand the idea of just paying for ads that users watch."

YouTube said that revenue has doubled every year since 2009 and that it makes money from three billion video views weekly, but declined to reveal exact figures or say whether the video-sharing service is profitable.

While YouTube is the most popular application on Google TV, the video-sharing service is intent on being available on the full array of platforms and hardware including videogame consoles, smart television sets, and smartphones.

"There will be millions of channels with or without YouTube," Mehrotra said when asked about competition from Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Home and others.

"We are doing our best to make sure we are the best possible home for them and we expect lots of people to do their own takes on that as well."

More changes are ahead for YouTube as the world of online video viewing flourishes, according to executives.


Strikers clash with police in Shanghai: rights group

SHANGHAI, December  2, 2011 (AFP) - More than 1,000 workers at a plant in China's commercial hub Shanghai went on strike for at least two days over layoffs ahead of a planned move, with some clashing with police, a rights group said Friday.

Several workers have been injured in conflicts between protesters and police at the factory, which is owned by Singapore electronics firm Hi-P International, the US-based group China Labor Watch said in a statement.

The protest, which began Wednesday, came after the company laid off about 1,000 workers as it plans to shift production to the nearby city of Suzhou, it said. Staff claimed they lost their jobs without notice and were given inadequate compensation.

Hi-P International's management in Singapore told AFP, "The impact is very minimal and we are working with the relevant authorities."

Shanghai police could not immediately be reached for comment on the protest, the latest in a spate of unrest in China as an increasingly demanding workforce faces off with employers struggling with high costs and falling exports.

Hi-P International manufactures for the telecommunications, consumer electronics and computing industries, according to its website.

The unrest comes as China's exports and manufacturing activity weaken, hit by falling demand due to economic woes in Europe and the United States -- both crucial markets for the export-driven economy.

Last month, more than 7,000 workers went on strike at a factory in the southern province of Guangdong making New Balance, Adidas and Nike shoes, clashing with police in a protest over layoffs and wage cuts.

Also last month, hundreds of female workers walked off the job at a bra factory in the southern city of Shenzhen, the manufacturing metropolis that borders Hong Kong, to demand overtime payments.


Google mulling online retail move: report

SAN FRANCISCO, December  2, 2011 (AFP) - Internet powerhouse Google is in talks with major retailers about an online shopping service that would deliver purchases to buyers within 24 hours, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Such a service would be a direct challenge to e-commerce king Amazon.com, which promises one- to two-day delivery on purchases by people who pay $79 annually to be members of a Prime program that comes with added perks.

Google has reportedly reached out to major US retail businesses, including Macy's, OfficeMax and Gap Inc.

"They've approached us with the idea, but we haven't made any decisions," a Macy's spokesman told the Journal.

Amazon has been gaining ground in the online advertising market as shoppers use the online retailer's website for searches instead of Google or other services. Online ads are Google's main source of revenue.

Amazon's influence is growing with the allure of online videos and other content for Prime members.

Google, on the other hand, has been weighing into the online retail market with features such as coupons for deals at local businesses and Android smartphones that can double as electronic wallets to pay in stores.


Researcher finds snooping smartphone software

SAN FRANCISCO, December  1, 2011 (AFP) - A smartphone security researcher is shining light on a hidden program that tracks activity on Android, BlackBerry and Nokia handsets.

Trevor Eckhart exposed the workings of Control IQ in a video available online Wednesday as the California company behind the software defended it as a tool for mobile network operators.

"Our software is designed to help mobile network providers diagnose critical issues that lead to problems such as dropped calls and battery drain," Carrier IQ said in a press statement.

The company denied the software logged keystrokes or tracked smartphone users.

However, Eckhart's video showed Control IQ software buried deep in an Android-powered smartphone recording buttons pressed, Internet search queries, text messages and locations.

Eckhart typed a text message of "Hello world!" only to have it instantly appear in a Control IQ application log in an Android phone.

The software was tricky to find on the device and couldn't be turned off, according to his demonstration.

Control IQ had tried to silence Echkart with a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action but backed off after lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) went to his defense.

"Mr. Eckhart's legitimate and truthful research is sheltered by both the fair use doctrine and the First Amendment," EFF senior staff attorney Marcia Hofmann wrote in a response to the Control IQ letter.

Eckhart wanted details regarding why the Control IQ software was vacuuming information about smartphone use and who they shared it with.

New WikiLeaks 'spy files' show global surveillance industry

LONDON, December  1, 2011 (AFP) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange launched the website's new project Thursday, the publication of hundreds of files detailing a global industry that gives governments tools to spy on their citizens.

They reveal the activities of about 160 companies in 25 countries which develop technologies to allow the tracking and monitoring of individuals by their mobile phones, email accounts and Internet browsing histories.

"Today we release over 287 files documenting the reality of the international mass surveillance industry -- an industry which now sells equipment to dictators and democracies alike in order to intercept entire populations," Assange told reporters in London.

He said that in the last ten years it had grown from a covert industry which primarily supplied government intelligence agencies such as the NSA in the United States and Britain's GCHQ, to a huge transnational business.

Assange has been in Britain for the past year fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning on allegations of rape and sexual assault, living under tight bail conditions. His case is due to come up again on December 5.

The documents on the website, http://wikileaks.org/the-spyfiles.html, include manuals for surveillance products sold to repressive Arab regimes.

They have come to light in part from offices ransacked during rebellions in countries such as Egypt and Libya earlier this year, as well as investigative work by WikiLeaks and its media and campaigning partners.

"These systems that are revealed in these documents show exactly the kind of systems that the Stasi wished they could have built," said Jacob Abbelbaum, a former WikiLeaks spokesman and computer expert at the University of Washington.

"These systems have been sold by Western companies to places for example like Syria, and Libya and Tunisia and Egypt. These systems are used to hunt people down and to murder."

Experts who worked on the release warned that at present the industry was completely unregulated, and urged governments worldwide to introduce new laws governing the export of such technology.

"Western governments cannot stand idly by while this technology is still being sold," said Eric King, from Privacy International.


2011/12/01

Internet stock slips raise fears of new bubble - Analysis

NEW YORK, November 30, 2011 (AFP) - Quick cooling of hot stock market debuts by Internet darlings such as Groupon has fed fears of another speculative bubble as social networking star Facebook prepares to go public.

Local bargain community Groupon, professional social network LinkedIn and consumer reviews website Angie's List each saw stock prices leap during initial public offerings (IPOs) this year.

But share prices in each company are now near or below where they were when the up-and-coming firms debuted on the trading floor.

"We are going to hit a bubble again... The question is, are we in a bubble or are we just in the early stages?" said analyst Lou Kerner of institutional investment firm Liquidnet.

The current infatuation with new technology firms reminds Kerner and others of the frenzied investor speculation during the 1994-1999 Internet boom, which ended with a historic bubble burst.

"Groupon really highlights the difficulty in pricing shares of a company with a business model in its infancy," Kerner said.

"It's a black eye to the banks (that championed the market debut) and to the company for going to the IPO altar when there was no reason to do that."

As with the legendary dot-com boom, investors enthralled by new technology are driving the values of such firms, according to the analyst.

Today's sweethearts are social media firms that leverage the power of relationships in online communities.

"What you are seeing is very much a repeat of the 1994-1999 time period," Kerner said.

"Valuations climbed for a long time, eventually reaching bubble proportions... Now investors are nervous, wondering what stage of this wave we are at... It is our view that we're still in the early innings."

There is no reason for panic regarding Facebook, which is rumored to be considering an IPO as soon as April, according to the analyst.

Facebook is more mature than Groupon and "in a class by itself" in the way that Google and Amazon were when they debuted in the stock market, Kerner said.

He considered plausible the Facebook valuation of $100 billion proposed in media reports.

Other analysts noted that fledgling Internet firms in the stock market could see share prices suffer due to broader market factors that prompt investors to seek shelter in companies with longer track records.

"IPOs are inherently more risky than stocks that have longer trading history," said Lise Buyer, founder of Class V Group, which specializes in IPO strategies for companies.

"When the market is volatile, as it has been lately, investors often sell their small, riskier positions first."

LinkedIn share prices may have been swayed by basic supply and demand, as the company offered relatively few shares at its IPO and then last week opted to sell more, sending the price down, Buyer said.

Speculators out for fast profit instead of a long-term investment could have driven Groupon and Angie's List stock prices down by selling when shares began falling.

"I think a lot of those investors were looking at them as a quick trade on a hot IPO," said Nick Einhorn of Renaissance Capital, a firm specializing in entries to the stock market.

"When the stock began falling, a lot of those investors would have looked to get out, thus accelerating the selling pressure," he said.

"In general, if an IPO falls below its IPO price investors view this as a negative signal and often look to dump shares."

Groupon shares were trading at $16 on the NASDAQ late Tuesday after its IPO at $20. Angie's List shares sank to $11.50 in after-hours trading that was below the IPO price of $13.

LinkedIn traded at a share price of $58.79, higher than its stock market debut at $45 but below a mid-July peak of $109.97.


Warren Buffett buys hometown paper

CHICAGO, November 30, 2011 (AFP) - Warren Buffett announced plans Wednesday to buy his hometown newspaper group, expanding his print media holdings despite misgivings about the health and future of the industry.

Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway did not disclose the terms of the deal to purchase the Omaha World-Herald and its subsidiaries, which include six daily newspapers and several weeklies in Nebraska and Iowa.

"The World-Herald delivers solid profits and is one of the best-run newspapers in America," Buffett said in a statement. "We are also delighted to report that the editorial independence that Nebraskans and Iowans have come to expect from the World-Herald will continue."

The World-Herald is the last employee-owned newspaper in the United States, an ownership structure which made it difficult to raise capital and buy back stock from employees, said chief executive officer Terry Kroeger.

"Warren Buffett's offer to purchase our Company presented a unique opportunity to address our long-term capital needs and continue local ownership of the Omaha World-Herald," Kroeger said.

The transaction is expected to close in late December, pending approval of the World-Herald's shareholders, which include current and retired employees and the Peter Kiewit Foundation.

Newspapers have been struggling across the United States faced with a steep decline in print advertising revenue, falling circulation and the migration of readers to free news online.

2011/11/30

Protest-averse Singapore allows 'SlutWalk'

SINGAPORE, November 30, 2011 (AFP) - Protest-averse Singapore will allow a "SlutWalk" rally against sexual violence to be held this weekend, police said Wednesday after a public squabble between the authorities and organisers.

"A permit has been approved," a police spokesman told AFP.

Unlike SlutWalk marches held in other cities, the Singapore edition will be restricted to a free-speech park called Speakers' Corner in line with strict laws against street demonstrations.

The organisers had insisted they never needed a permit in the first place but police said the global nature of the movement and expected presence of foreigners made it necessary.

SlutWalk events in other countries featured scantily-dressed women insisting on their right to wear what they want without being harassed or assaulted.

The Singapore event will include dances, speeches as well as a muay thai martial arts demonstration.

The organisers are appealing out of principle to the minister in charge of the police to waive the permit requirement, which comes with a Sg$50 ($38.64) fee, but said they would pay it if their request was rejected.

"SlutWalk Singapore has been granted the police permit, but we have sent in an appeal to Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean to have it waived," they said on their Facebook site.

SlutWalks have been held in dozens of cities around the world, including Toronto, Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand, New Delhi, Philadelphia, Seoul, Sydney, Washington, Paris and Berlin.

Alex Au, a social critic and gay rights activist, ridiculed the police reaction to the SlutWalk, saying in a blog that "maybe our senior civil servants can't get past the word 'slut' and have begun to hyperventilate."

Internet stock slips raise fears of new bubble

NEW YORK, November 30, 2011 (AFP) - Quick cooling of hot stock market debuts by Internet darlings such as Groupon has fed fears of another speculative bubble as social networking star Facebook prepares to go public.

Local bargain community Groupon, professional social network LinkedIn and consumer reviews website Angie's List each saw stock prices leap during initial public offerings (IPOs) this year.

But share prices in each company are now near or below where they were when the up-and-coming firms debuted on the trading floor.

"We are going to hit a bubble again... The question is, are we in a bubble or are we just in the early stages?" said analyst Lou Kerner of institutional investment firm Liquidnet.

The current infatuation with new technology firms reminds Kerner and others of the frenzied investor speculation during the 1994-1999 Internet boom, which ended with a historic bubble burst.

"Groupon really highlights the difficulty in pricing shares of a company with a business model in its infancy," Kerner said.

"It's a black eye to the banks (that championed the market debut) and to the company for going to the IPO altar when there was no reason to do that."

As with the legendary dot-com boom, investors enthralled by new technology are driving the values of such firms, according to the analyst.

Today's sweethearts are social media firms that leverage the power of relationships in online communities.

"What you are seeing is very much a repeat of the 1994-1999 time period," Kerner said.

"Valuations climbed for a long time, eventually reaching bubble proportions... Now investors are nervous, wondering what stage of this wave we are at... It is our view that we're still in the early innings."

There is no reason for panic regarding Facebook, which is rumored to be considering an IPO as soon as April, according to the analyst.

Facebook is more mature than Groupon and "in a class by itself" in the way that Google and Amazon were when they debuted in the stock market, Kerner said.

He considered plausible the Facebook valuation of $100 billion proposed in media reports.

Other analysts noted that fledgling Internet firms in the stock market could see share prices suffer due to broader market factors that prompt investors to seek shelter in companies with longer track records.

"IPOs are inherently more risky than stocks that have longer trading history," said Lise Buyer, founder of Class V Group, which specializes in IPO strategies for companies.

"When the market is volatile, as it has been lately, investors often sell their small, riskier positions first."

LinkedIn share prices may have been swayed by basic supply and demand, as the company offered relatively few shares at its IPO and then last week opted to sell more, sending the price down, Buyer said.

Speculators out for fast profit instead of a long-term investment could have driven Groupon and Angie's List stock prices down by selling when shares began falling.

"I think a lot of those investors were looking at them as a quick trade on a hot IPO," said Nick Einhorn of Renaissance Capital, a firm specializing in entries to the stock market.

"When the stock began falling, a lot of those investors would have looked to get out, thus accelerating the selling pressure," he said.

"In general, if an IPO falls below its IPO price investors view this as a negative signal and often look to dump shares."

Groupon shares were trading at $16 on the NASDAQ late Tuesday after its IPO at $20. Angie's List shares sank to $11.50 in after-hours trading that was below the IPO price of $13.

LinkedIn traded at a share price of $58.79, higher than its stock market debut at $45 but below a mid-July peak of $109.97.

China police probe law firm linked to Ai Weiwei

BEIJING, November 30, 2011 (AFP) - A Chinese lawyer involved in Ai Weiwei's tax case said Wednesday police were probing accounts at his law firm, just as the controversial artist and activist's wife was taken in for questioning.

Pu Zhiqiang, the lawyer for a company founded by Ai that was accused of huge tax evasion after the artist was released from 81 days in detention earlier this year, said police had visited his Huayi Law Firm on Tuesday.

"They said they wanted us to assist them in solving a case, and photocopied this year's account documents," Pu told AFP, adding he did not know if the visit was related to Ai Weiwei.

"There is no evidence that they are targeting me," he said, but refused to discuss the specifics of the case.

The police visit happened on the same day that Ai's wife Lu Qing was summoned by police and interrogated for three hours as a "criminal suspect", although it is unclear what crime she is suspected of.

Ai, whose activism has made him a thorn in the side of China's Communist authorities, was charged on his release in June with tax evasion linked to Fake Cultural Development, a firm he founded but that is legally owned by his wife.

Pu, one of Fake's lawyers, has helped Ai fight the charges, which the artist denies, calling them "politically motivated".

Earlier this month, the 54-year-old was handed a bill for 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) in alleged back taxes.

Within weeks of receiving the bill, he was able to pay an 8.45 million yuan guarantee needed to challenge the charge thanks to donations from fans and supporters of his activism.

During her interrogation, Lu said police had asked her about Fake and told her not to leave Beijing.

Beijing's police refused immediate comment on both Ai's case and the investigation into Pu's law firm when contacted by AFP.

The artist's problems with authorities started when he began investigating the collapse of schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and a 2010 fire at a Shanghai high-rise that killed dozens.

But until his detention he had been left relatively unscathed thanks to his family background. His father is the late Ai Qing, a famous poet who was disgraced and later rehabilitated by the Communist regime.

This week, the influential US-based periodical Foreign Policy ranked Ai number 18 on the magazine's list of top 100 global thinkers.

Malaysian women welcome female-only taxi service

PUTRAJAYA, November 30, 2011 (AFP) - A new scheme to provide women-only taxis is being welcomed by Malaysian commuters who say female passengers in the Muslim-majority country are vulnerable to robbery and other violence.

Launched at the weekend in the capital Kuala Lumpur by the government, the initiative already has an initial fleet of 50 taxis on the road, driven by women and emblazoned with the words "Teksi Wanita" ("Women Taxi") across the tops of the windshields.

"It's good of course. It's safer when we travel alone," said Fiena Nasir, a 26-year-old office worker, as she stepped into a cab in Malaysia's administrative capital of Putrajaya on Wednesday.

Malaysia has previously launched pink-coloured female train carriages and women-only buses to protect travellers from sexual harassment.

The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, which launched the cab service in cooperation with several local taxi companies, hopes to expand to 400 such taxis to create more women cab drivers, which are currently rare.

There are about 20,000 taxis now plying greater Kuala Lumpur, which has a population of around six million people.

"These women (drivers), they need transport to drive their children to school. So we want to encourage other women to call for these taxis," said M. Suaparmanyam, a local businessman who is working with the ministry on the programme.

Suaparmanyam said some of the women drivers are concerned that male passengers will avoid their cabs.

Concerns also have been raised that the "Women Taxi" label could make the drivers targets of violence.

But Suaparmanyam says his electrical signalling company plans to help organise the training of 350 more women in self-defence and other basic skills to work as drivers by 2013.

Nor Azmah Bahari, a single mother of five who has been driving a taxi for four months, and was roped in under the new scheme, hopes the initiative will bring her more business.

She now earns about 150 ringgit ($47) per day, one-third of which goes to renting the taxi. Under the women-only scheme, she gets a 10-ringgit discount on the rent.

"I like driving. My schedule is flexible, and I don't have any (time) commitments."

Malaysia introduced female-only buses last year on several routes in Kuala Lumpur during peak hours to help counter sexual harassment on crowded public transport.

That followed pink train carriages launched earlier to give women the option of travelling separately from men.

More than 60 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people are Muslim ethnic Malays, but the country also has large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Southeast Asian growth to slow through 2016: OECD

JAKARTA, November 29, 2011 (AFP) - Growth in Southeast Asia's six major economies is expected to slow through 2016, the OECD said Tuesday, urging them to find new growth drivers as the key US and European export markets a stuck in crisis.

In its outlook for the region, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said domestic demand would become an more important element of growth as the developed world struggles to recover from the global downturn.

It said the six key economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam would grow "five percent in 2011, and... 5.6 percent during 2012-2016, two percent lower than in 2010", the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said.

The forecast comes after the Paris-based group warned on Monday that leading economies were in danger of sinking into a fresh recession or even a depression as leaders in Europe and the United States struggle to address huge debt troubles.

Growth in the eurozone is set to stall next year, dropping to 0.2 percent from 1.6 percent this year, while it said the US growth could slump to just 0.3 percent next year from 1.7 percent this year.

With this in mind the OECD said regional governments should start to diversify away from their export-led structures.

"Previously heavily dependent on external demand, domestic drivers will play a more important role in Southeast Asian economies going forward," the group said in outlook, which was launched in Jakarta.

"A new type of economic growth is needed in Southeast Asia," said Mario Pezzini, director of the OECD Development Centre.

"Every cloud has a silver lining. The global uncertainty is an opportunity to re-invent growth," he said in a statement.

Large investments in infrastructure and private consumption, driven by the growing middle class and reforms in social policies, are the increasing engines of growth in the region, the report added.

It added that structural policies are needed to boost productivity and shield the economies of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations from the impact of global uncertainty and other external shocks.

It added that comprehensive reforms were needed in many many sectors, including healthcare, infrastructure, the labour market and agriculture.

ASEAN -- which also includes Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos -- has a total population of more than 600 million and is forecast to see gross domestic product of $1.8 trillion this year.

2011/11/29

Programming language can't be copyrighted: EU court

LUXEMBOURG, November 29, 2011 (AFP) - A computer programming language cannot be protected by copyright, the adviser to the EU's top court said on Tuesday in an opinion that could affect the competitive IT industry.

Advocate general Yves Bot argued that programming languages -- different digital vocabularies such as HTML and Java used to make a computer perform certain tasks -- should be compared to the language used by a novelist.

The functionalities of a computer programme should also not be eligible for copyright, Bot said, adding that they are the equivalent of ideas and that protecting them would "amount to making it possible to monopolise ideas."

The advocate general's opinions are not binding but the Luxembourg-based European Union Court of Justice follows his advice in 80 percent of cases.

The opinion arises from a case pitting North Carolina-based SAS Institute, which provides business analytics software and services, against British software firm World Programming Ltd.

SAS launched a complaint in Britain against WPL after the US company created a product that can execute programmes written in SAS language.

The High Court of Justice in Britain asked the EU judges to issue a preliminary ruling to clarify the scope of EU legal protection for computer programmes.

"The functionalities of a computer program and the programming language cannot be protected by copyright," Bot said.

Bot said however that copyright can cover "the means for achieving the concrete expression" of the functionalities.

"The way in which formulae and algorithms are arranged -- like the style in which the computer program is written -- will be likely to reflect the author's own intellectual creation and therefore be eligible for protection," he said.

But the holder of a programme license can reproduce or translate a source code without the author's authorisation, under certain conditions, so as to ensure different elements of a programme work together, Bot said.


Tokyo tops out Paris again as world food capital

TOKYO, November 29, 2011 (AFP) - Tokyo has once again proved its worth at the top table of world food with more Michelin three star restaurants than Paris, according to the latest edition of the gastronomical guide.

Japan as a whole also beats France, with 32 establishments granted the maximum grade, against 25 in the guide's home country.

Of Tokyo's 160,000 restaurants, 16 were awarded top marks, 52 got two stars and 179 were deemed worthy of one star by the authors of the Red Guide.

Paris has just 10 three star eateries.

While most of those included in the book serve Japanese food, a Korean restaurant was awarded two stars, while two French restaurants got top honours.

A guide to western Japan released last month propelled the country into the world top spot for haute cuisine, with 15 top rated restaurants in cities including Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and the former capital Nara.

"Japan is a unique country with many cities full of high level cuisine," said Bernard Delmas, president of Michelin in Tokyo, last month.

"This is why, though we reach the fifth anniversary of the arrival of the Michelin guide in Japan, we continue to discover new stars to introduce to our readers."

Twitter buys Android gadget security startup

SAN FRANCISCO, November 29, 2011 (AFP) - A San Francisco startup specializing in security for smartphones and tablets powered by Android software said on Monday that it had been bought by Twitter.

Whisper Systems did not disclose the terms of the deal.

"We started Whisper Systems with the goal of improving security and privacy for mobile devices," the startup said in a blog post at its website.

"Now that we're joining Twitter, we're looking forward to bringing our technology and our expertise into Twitter's products and services," it added.

Whisper Systems products include encryption, software firewalls, and secure text messaging for mobile devices running on Google's Android platform.

Malaysia tribes struggle with modern problems

SUNGAI ASAP, November 29, 2011 (AFP) - Tribal chief Danny Ibang lived most of his life in the pristine jungles of the Malaysian portion of Borneo island until he was pushed into a modern world he was told would be better.

And in many ways, it is.

His Kenyah community of 2,000 enjoys electricity, running water, health and educational facilities previously undreamed-of since being moved out of the jungles to a new village to make way for the huge Bakun hydroelectric dam.

But as expanding dams, oil-palm plantations and other development forces thousands off ancestral lands in the state of Sarawak, a host of modern new problems threaten to break down once tight-knit tribal communities.

Village elders and activists say alcoholism, drug use, and crime are on the increase and anger is rising over continuing encroachment on native lands.

"There have been a lot of social changes after the Bakun dam," said Ibang, 66, whose people were among the first moved to the relocation village of Sungai Asap 14 years ago.

"Some teens who go to school learn to rebel against their parents, and boys and girls now mingle freely as they see it on the television," he said. There were 10 recent teen pregnancies -- something unheard-of in the old days.

The state government is pushing to develop the economy of Sarawak, which is blessed by rich natural resources yet remains one of Malaysia's poorest states.

But critics say the effort, while necessary, is plagued by graft and harms tribes that are ethnically distinct from the nation's majority Malays.

Tribal lands make up about 80 percent of Sarawak and "nearly all has been taken for logging and plantations", said Mark Bujang, head of Borneo Resources Institute, a body working in defence of native land rights.

In October, Penan tribespeople blocked roads into their lands for a week to protest logging and alleged river pollution by Malaysian firm Interhill until the blockade was dismantled by authorities.

At a forum on native concerns in the town of Bintulu in October organised by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, about 150 Iban tribespeople alleged a palm oil company illegally seized their land for a plantation and disturbed ancestral graves, said Joseph Laja, an Iban.

"We are really angry," Laja told commission members.

"If they move into another part of our land, there could be violence."

About four million of Malaysia's 28 million people belong to indigenous tribes, most of which are native to Malaysian Borneo where some retain diminishing traditional rainforest hunting and farming ways.

Officially, they enjoy the same preferential treatment in business, education and other areas accorded to Malays -- a controversial policy meant to lift Malay socio-economic standing.

But natives and activists say this has meant little to tribes, who remain among the country's poorest groups.

As a result, many youths welcome their new life and opportunities in Sungai Asap, which now has 11,600 people from a range of tribes living in traditionally inspired longhouses.

Roads linking the village to coastal cities have, along with modern telecommunications, opened new employment vistas for tribal youths.

"I love living in Sungai Asap," said Lenny Prescially, 18, as she tapped out messages to friends on Facebook in a local community centre.

Her family moved here from the jungles when she was four and she knows little of the old ways.

"Only the elders want to continue the old lifestyle. They don't know anything," she said dismissively of the older men who still hunt wild boar in forests and nearby palm plantations, machetes strapped to their waists.

The Bakun dam has been widely criticised as a white elephant, disastrous for uprooted tribes and pristine jungles that are now inundated by a reservoir the size of Singapore, its projected power output exceeding Sarawak's needs.

Transparency International has called the dam, which began generating electricity in August, a "monument to graft".

Much of the anger in Sarawak is directed at Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud -- himself from the Melanau tribe -- who has governed the state since 1981 and is widely accused of corruption, cronyism, and plundering the state's resources, which he denies.

But Sarawak Land Development Minister James Masing said the state must develop the economy and give youths new opportunities.
"I have to support (the state's youths). We need to develop Sarawak," he told AFP.

But there is a palpable sense of rootlessness today for communities whose identity was long linked to ancestral lands passed down through generations.

"When our land is taken away, there is no longer any blood in our body," said Sungai Asap resident Stem Liau, 48.

Ibang, the Kenyah headman, said his people were promised eight hectares (20 acres) of farmland per family at Sungai Asap but only received a little more than one hectare of poor-quality land.

"Promises have been broken," said Ibang, who has struggled to grow pepper, cocoa and rubber.

Hasmy Agam, chairman of the rights commission, said it had received nearly 2,000 complaints over native land rights infringement in Malaysia over the past decade. Many of those complaining have threatened violence.

"We sense that. We hope that is not the solution," Hasmy said.

Facebook stock offer rumors renewed

SAN FRANCISCO, November 29, 2011 (AFP) - The Internet on Monday buzzed anew with talk that Facebook is poised to go public after the Wall Street Journal reported the social networking giant could issue stock as early as April.

"We are not going to participate in speculation about an IPO," Facebook spokesman Larry Yu said in response to an AFP inquiry.

The Journal cited unnamed sources as saying that Facebook executives were discussing the potential of an initial public offering (IPO) of stock some time between April and June of next year.

Early this month Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said during an interview on Charlie Rose's PBS television program that the company will have an IPO at some point but was in no hurry.

"Honestly, it's not something I spend a lot of time on a day-to-day basis thinking about now," he said during the November 7 interview.

"A big part of being a technology company is getting the best engineers and designers and talented people around the world," he said. "And one of the ways that you can do that is you compensate people with equity or options.

"At some point we're going to make that equity worth something publicly and liquidly, in a liquid way," he said. "Now, the promise isn't that we're going to do it on any kind of short-term time horizon."

Facebook sidelines contested Merck profile page

SAN FRANCISCO, November 29, 2011 (AFP) - Facebook will sideline a Merck page at the social network until a pair of US and German companies work out which one gets the online address, a source familiar with the matter told AFP on Monday.

German pharmaceutical and chemical giant Merck KGaA last week called for answers from California-based Facebook after losing control of the www.facebook.com/Merck page at the leading social network.

The group was "very surprised" to discover that its Facebook page contained information on a similarly named US company, according to Merck KGaA spokesman Gangolf Schrimpf.

"The transfer of the vanity URL Facebook.com/Merck from Merck KGaA to Merck & Co. was due to an administrative error," Facebook told AFP on Monday. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused."

Merck KGaA has lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court of the State of New York setting out its intention to take legal action against Facebook.

"Because Facebook is an important marketing device, the page is of great value to Merck and its misappropriation is causing harm," said the complaint.

The Merck Facebook page will be unavailable until the vying companies agree which should get it, the source told AFP.

Both Mercks are free to create new Facebook pages titled in ways that reflect the names of the companies.

In March, 2010, the German firm signed a deal with Facebook for exclusive rights to the page but was astonished to find in October this year that it had lost administrative control and page content related to US competitor Merck.

The two firms are distantly related, but have been legally separate entities since the 1919 Treaty of Versailles after World War I when the group was split in two as part of a reparations package against Germany.

2011/11/28

Kindle sales quadrupled on Black Friday: Amazon

NEW YORK, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - Online retailing giant Amazon said Monday that sales of its Kindle e-readers and tablets quadrupled on Black Friday over the previous year's annual pre-Christmas national shopping orgy.

The company gave no specific data on Kindle sales last Friday, but said its new tablet computer, the Kindle Fire, was also the bestselling product on Amazon.com.

"Even before the busy holiday shopping weekend, we'd already sold millions of the new Kindle family," Dave Limp, vice president of Amazon's Kindle division, said in a statement.

"Black Friday was the best ever for the Kindle family -- customers purchased four times as many Kindle devices as they did last Black Friday -- and last year was a great year," he said.

Amazon has slashed prices of the Kindle e-readers and set a below-cost price for the Fire -- a rival of Apple's iPad -- with an eye at boosting sales of e-books, music and movies from its online store, analysts say.

"The Kindle Fire, at a retail price point of $199, is sold at a loss by Amazon, just as the basic Kindle is also sold at a loss at the current $79 retail price point," IHS iSuppli's Andrew Rassweiler said earlier this month.

"Amazon makes its money not on Kindle hardware, but on the paid content and other products it plans to sell the consumer through the Kindle," Rassweiler said.

Internet has become 'surveillance machine': Assange

HONG KONG, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange blasted the mainstream media, Washington, banks and the Internet itself as he addressed journalists in Hong Kong on Monday via videolink from house arrest in England.

Fresh from accepting a top award for journalism from the prestigious Walkley Foundation in his native Australia on Sunday, Assange spoke to the News World Summit in Hong Kong before keeping a regular appointment with the police.

He defended his right to call himself a journalist and said WikiLeaks' next "battle" would be to ensure that the Internet does not turn into a vast surveillance tool for governments and corporations.

"Of course I'm a goddamn journalist," he responded with affected frustration when a moderator of the conference asked if he was a member of the profession.

He said his written record spoke for itself and argued that the only reason people kept asking him if he was a journalist was because the United States' government wanted to silence him.

"The United States government does not want legal protection for us," he said, referring to a US Justice Department investigation into his whistle-blower website for releasing secret diplomatic and military documents.

The former hacker criticised journalists and the mainstream media for becoming too cosy with the powerful and secretive organisations they were supposed to be holding to account.

In a 40-minute address, he also accused credit card companies such as Visa and Mastercard of illegally cutting WikiLeaks off from funding under a secret deal with the White House.

"Issues that should be decided in open court are being decided in back rooms in Washington," he said.

The Internet itself had become "the most significant surveillance machine that we have ever seen," Assange said in reference to the amount of information people give about themselves online.

"It's not an age of transparency at all ... the amount of secret information is more than ever before," he said, adding that information flows in but is not flowing out of governments and other powerful organisations.

"I see that really is our big battle. The technology gives and the technology takes away," he added.

The anti-secrecy activist then help up a handwritten sign from an aide telling him to "stop" talking or he would be late for a mandatory appointment with police.

Assange, 40, is under house arrest in England pending the outcome of a Swedish extradition request over claims of rape and sexual assault made by two women. He says he is the victim of a smear campaign.

Chinese shopkeepers protest in Madrid

MADRID, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - Hundreds of Chinese shopkeepers demonstrated in Madrid on Monday to demand licences to sell beer and wine, in their first ever public protest in Spain.

Some 200 demonstrators marched to the door of Madrid town hall with a stack of application papers for the so-called "second licences" that let grocers sell alcohol.

They said the licences were crucial to their economic survival but were being denied to them by local officials.

"It is hurting our business a lot. I want the same rights as Spaniards," said Pedro Zhang, head of a Chinese retailers' association.

He said Chinese shopkeepers were being systematically denied the licences at the discretion of municipal officials and were fined 30,000 to 600,000 euros (up to $800,000) for unauthorised selling.

"Why are they letting other convenience stores and all-night stores sell (alcohol) but not us?" he asked.

"Without this authorisation we cannot function," another of the leaders of the demonstration, Juan-Carlos Zheng, told AFP, before being escorted into the town hall with the box full of applications.

Chinese owners run large numbers of businesses in and around the Spanish capital but had usually kept a low profile until Monday's demonstration.

Demonstrators hoisted bamboo canes with banners reading "I pay my taxes, I want a second licence" and "Help us to integrate", along with red and yellow Spanish and Chinese flags.

Singapore, Malaysia boost financial cooperation

SINGAPORE, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - Singapore and Malaysia said Monday they have signed an agreement to increase financial cooperation by allowing easier access to funds denominated in the local currency from each other's central bank.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore and Bank Negara Malaysia said in a joint statement that the cross-border arrangement would help ensure financial stability.

Under the arrangement, eligible financial institutions operating in Singapore may obtain Singapore dollars from the Monetary Authority of Singapore using ringgit-denominated securities as collateral.

Similarly, eligible financial institutions operating in Malaysia can have access to Malaysian ringgit funds from Bank Negara Malaysia by pledging securities denominated in Singapore dollars, the statement said.

The arrangement "will facilitate more effective liquidity management by our financial institutions," said Malaysian central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz.

It "will also serve to reinforce the greater regional orientation of our financial institutions which will in turn support the economic potential of our two economies," she said.

Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Ravi Menon said the agreement "is a valuable addition to the existing network of bilateral arrangements" the city-state has with other central banks.

"It will help build confidence among financial institutions operating in our two markets," he said.

Malaysian PM defends new protest law

KUALA LUMPUR, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Monday defended a law regulating public gatherings, responding to a growing public outcry that it will limit freedom of assembly.

Najib has been struggling to regain support ahead of snap polls expected within months by promising greater civil liberties, and the Peaceful Assembly Bill allows for gatherings without the currently required police permit.

But the law has come under fire with activists and opposition leaders saying it imposes too many conditions, such as the outright banning of street protests.

Najib said the bill, which he tabled in parliament last week, aimed to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly and accused critics of wanting to "confuse the public."

"The important thing is that the new act guarantees the right of the citizen to assemble in a peaceful manner," Najib was quoted by national news agency Bernama as saying.

He said street protests were not allowed as it inconvenienced the public but the government had designated places, including stadiums, where gatherings can be held without notice.

The bill is expected to be passed Tuesday as Najib's Barisan Nasional coalition has the necessary majority -- even without the opposition's support.

De facto law minister Nazri Aziz told AFP that the government would table changes to the bill before voting to further address criticism.

The changes include reducing the notice period rally organisers must give authorities from within 30 to 10 days.

But senior opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang warned of "another political disaster" for Najib if he pushes the bill through following a much-criticised police crackdown on a July mass protest for electoral reforms.

He said the law was "the worst and most slipshod bill in 54-year parliamentary history raising questions about the prime minister's bona fides in political reforms."

Edmund Bon, a prominent human rights lawyer, said he expected at least 500 lawyers and activists to walk to parliament Tuesday to call on the government to withdraw what he called "an obnoxious piece of legislation."

"It restricts the constitutional right to free assembly," he told AFP, adding that it severely limited the places where demonstrations could be held.

Najib's reform pledges include the abolition of several feared security laws and lifting of a ban on students participating in politics.

But critics have dismissed these as election ploys to boost the popularity of his Barisan Nasional coalition, which suffered heavy losses in 2008 polls but maintained its five-decade-old grip on power.


Global slowdown set to hit China and India: OECD

PARIS, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - A slowdown in the global economy is set to hit emerging giants China and India, but also bring a respite from inflation, while Japan is still set for a rebound, the OECD said on Monday.

But an aggravation of the eurozone debt crisis, which the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development considers the key risk to the world economy, would also hit emerging markets it warned.

"The emerging market economies would not be immune, with global trade volumes falling strongly, and the value of their international asset holdings being hit by weaker financial asset prices," it said.

If the eurozone manages to contain its crisis the OECD sees Japan receiving a boost from post-quake and tsunami reconstruction, while breakneck Chinese and Indian growth slows due to efforts to rein in inflation and weakening global trade.

"The recovery in the OECD area has now slowed to a crawl, notwithstanding a short-lived rebound from the restoration of global supply chains disrupted by the Japanese earthquake and its aftermath," the OECD said on releasing its latest set of forecasts.

"Emerging market output growth has also continued to soften, reflecting the impact of past domestic monetary policy tightening, sluggish external demand and high inflation," added the OECD, which unites the world's 34 most advanced countries.

Post-quake and tsunami reconstruction should close reduce the contraction this year to 0.3 percent from the 0.9 percent it expected this spring, the OECD said. Growth should rebound to 2.0 percent next year.

But "after an initial rapid rebound in activity following the earthquake and the Fukushima disaster, the pace of the recovery is now moderating," warned the OECD.

Emerging powerhouse China should see growth slow to 9.3 percent this year from 10.4 percent last year. A slowdown in world trade will brake growth to 8.5 percent in 2012 before it climbs to 9.5 percent in 2013.

The OECD said "output growth in China is projected to be well below potential in the near term" as soft demand for its goods abroad is mostly compensated by domestic demand.

A halt in the growth of commodities prices should help restrain inflation, with growth in consumer prices slowing from 5.6 percent this year to 3.8 percent for the next two years.

"As inflation and monetary conditions ease, GDP is expected to pick up from around the middle of 2012 and to grow at rates close to 10 percent through 2013," said the OECD.

Developments in inflation and the red-hot housing market should allow China's central bank to begin lowering interest rates from mid-2012.

It suggested as a "useful first step" in loosening monetary policy would be for Chinese authorities to "manage the exchange rate with reference to a clearly-defined basket of currencies."

The Unites States and other countries have accused Beijing of benefiting from keeping the yuan at an artificially low exchange rate and have pushed for it to appreciate and eventually become covertable.

In India, the OECD expects growth to remain "subdued" due to the weak world economy and efforts to rein in inflation.

Growth should slow down from 8.8 percent last year to 7.6 this year, and slow further to 7.5 percent in 2012. An improvement in the global economy and a slowdown in inflation should help growth pick up to 8.4 percent in 2013.

Inflation should slow to 7.9 percent this year, then to 7.5 percent in 2012 and 6.5 percent in 2013.


Britain 'would welcome' China investment in infrastructure

LONDON, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - Britain said on Monday it would welcome investment by China's $400 billion sovereign wealth fund in infrastructure projects, saying it would represent a "very significant boost" to the ailing economy.

Ministers are expected to detail a £30 billion ($46.7 billion, 34.9 billion euros) programme of investment in roads, railways and high-speed broadband on Tuesday as part of a package of measures to try to boost stalled growth.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said on Monday that £20 billion of this would come from private investment from pension funds.

He welcomed the prospect of foreign investment as well, after the head of China Investment Corporation (CIC) said that Beijing saw an opportunity to invest in US and European infrastucture projects.

"Sovereign wealth funds like the Chinese are potentially an important source of new private investment in our country's infrastructure," Alexander told Sky News television.

"We are a very open economy, we benefit from having strong trading links with countries around the world and strong investment links too.

"And just like British firms invest in infrastructure overseas, we're keen to encourage overseas organisations to invest in infrastruture in this country.

"If the Chinese sovereign wealth fund is going to join that then that is potentially a very significant boost to the British economy," Alexander added.

In an opinion piece in the Financial Times on Monday, CIC chairman Lou Jiwei wrote: "Now infrastructure in Europe and the US badly needs more investment.

"Traditionally, Chinese involvement in overseas infrastructure projects has just been as contractors. Now Chinese investors also see a need to invest in, develop and operate projects."

The infrastructure programme is expected to be at the centre of Finance Minister George Osborne's keynote economic statement on Tuesday, where he will acknowledge that the British economy has slowed.

Official figures in March estimating growth of 1.7 percent in 2011 are expected to be downgraded to around one percent.


WikiLeaks wins Australian journalism award

SYDNEY, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - WikiLeaks has been recognised in Australia for its "outstanding contribution to journalism", with founder Julian Assange lashing out at "cowardly" Prime Minister Julia Gillard in an acceptance speech.

The anti-secrecy website was lauded at the annual Walkley Awards, where winners are chosen by an independent panel of journalists and photographers, for its courageous reporting of secret US cables.

"WikiLeaks applied new technology to penetrate the inner workings of government to reveal an avalanche of inconvenient truths in a global publishing coup," the Walkley trustees said in bestowing the award Sunday evening.

"Its revelations, from the way the war on terror was being waged, to diplomatic bastardry, high-level horse-trading and the interference in the domestic affairs of nations, have had an undeniable impact."

The whistleblowing website has published thousands of cables in which US diplomats give their often candid views on world leaders, to Washington's acute embarrassment.

Assange, an Australian citizen who has previously blasted Canberra for not doing enough to protect him in the fallout from the leaks, was scathing of the government in accepting the accolade in a pre-recorded video message.

"The Gillard government has shown its true colours in relation to how it's handled US pressure on WikiLeaks," he said in footage shown on SBS television which broadcast the awards.

"Australian journalists are courageous, the Australian population is supportive, but Julia Gillard is a cowardly Australian prime minister.

"As Australians we shall not despair, as long as we can speak out, as long as we can publish, and as long as the Internet remains free, we will continue to fight back, armed with the truth," he added.

Assange has spent much of the last year under virtual house arrest in Britain since he was detained in December 2010 over claims of rape and sexual assault made by two women in Sweden.

He has strongly denied the allegations against him, claiming they are politically motivated and linked to the activities of WikiLeaks.

The former computer hacker is currently appealing a decision against his extradition to Sweden to face the charges.

China fund keen on Western infrastructure

BEIJING, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - China's $400-billion sovereign wealth fund wants to invest in European and US infrastructure, its chairman said in comments published Monday, as Beijing seeks better returns for its foreign exchange holdings.

"Now infrastructure in Europe and the US badly needs more investment," Lou Jiwei, head of China Investment Corporation (CIC), said, adding that the company was keen to team up with fund managers or participate in public-private-partnerships in Britain.

"Traditionally, Chinese involvement in overseas infrastructure projects has just been as contractors. Now Chinese investors also see a need to invest in, develop and operate projects," he wrote in an opinion article published in the Financial Times.

CIC was set up in 2007 to invest some of China's massive foreign exchange reserves -- the world's largest at $3.2017 trillion at the end of September -- partly to gain better returns.

It has been increasingly investing in real assets such as natural resources as it seeks to diversify away from financial holdings such as US Treasuries.

European leaders have been calling on China, the world's second largest economy, to help bail out debt-laden eurozone countries, but a senior CIC official said this month any investment would be based on financial returns.

"Our people would ask us the question: 'Wait a moment. Are you sure you can get a fair share of returns?'," Jin Liqun, chairman of the board of supervisors of CIC, told Al-Jazeera television.

A move to help developed European countries would be a hard sell for Communist Party leaders in a country where millions of people live in poverty and inflation and soaring housing costs are straining household budgets.

China has also been burned before on risky overseas investment. It bought stakes in investment bank Morgan Stanley and asset management firm Blackstone only to see values collapse in the 2008 global financial crisis.

The losses led to severe criticism of the investment choices made by the sovereign wealth fund, only a year after it was established.


In Myanmar trip, US seeks clout on China doorstep

WASHINGTON, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads this week on a historic visit to Myanmar that aims not only to pry open the closed nation but to shake up the battle for global influence right on China's doorstep.

Clinton on Wednesday will become the top US official to visit the nation formerly known as Burma in more than 50 years as she tests the waters after dramatic -- but tentative -- reforms by the military-backed government.

Clinton is expected to meet both President Thein Sein and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. She has said she will press for greater progress on human rights and democracy, without offering any let-up in biting US sanctions.

The United States has been careful not to raise expectations for a breakthrough. But Clinton's visit carries unmistakable symbolism as it seeks to advance US priorities in one of the countries most closely aligned with China.

Myanmar's "strategic importance to the United States is closely connected to concerns about rising Chinese influence," said John Ciorciari, an expert on Southeast Asia at the University of Michigan.

"To Beijing, Burma offers the possibility of natural resources and warm-water ports on the Indian Ocean that could be crucial in expanding China's naval reach," he said.

"Successful US engagement would lessen the likelihood of a strong Sino-Myanmar alignment in years ahead."

Beijing has provided the main diplomatic cover for Myanmar's leaders but the relationship is complicated, with some in the Southeast Asian nation resentful over China's overwhelming economic influence and historic border conflicts.

Myanmar recently defied China by shutting down work on an unpopular dam that would supply power across the border. Myanmar's leaders, known for deep distrust of the outside world, have reached out in recent years to India, Southeast Asia nations and, now, the United States.

For the United States, progress on Myanmar could help resolve a main stumbling block inside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, giving new influence to the fast-growing -- and mostly US-friendly -- 10-nation bloc.

A stronger ASEAN would allow "China to grow and be secure but not use its new economic might to force neighbors' hands on issues related to sovereignty," said Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

US President Barack Obama's administration, while saying it wants a cooperative relationship with a rising China, has recently gone on the offensive amid suspicions over Beijing's intentions.

Obama recently announced the stationing of US troops in Australia -- a clear sign of US priorities at a time of tight budgets -- and has pushed ahead a trans-Pacific free trade agreement that for now excludes China.

Myanmar's military seized power in 1962 but since last year has held elections, nominally handed power to civilians and freed Suu Kyi from house arrest. The new government has opened a dialogue with the opposition and ethnic minorities.

While the United States and the opposition were at first cynical about the moves, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy recently said it will re-enter mainstream politics. The party won 1990 elections but was never allowed to take power.

Even the most upbeat US policymakers acknowledge that Washington's influence is limited in a country so fearful of outside invasion that it suddenly moved its capital to the remote outpost of Naypyidaw in 2005.

The United States bans virtually all trade with Myanmar and any decision to end sanctions would need approval from Congress, with which exile groups have worked closely for years to pressure the generals.

Walter Lohman of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank that is often critical of the administration, welcomed Obama's phone consultations with Suu Kyi before the decision on Clinton's visit.

"The fact that the president called and got her blessing and that they're tying their policy to her makes it a very difficult decision to criticize," Lohman said.

But Lohman doubted how much further Myanmar would reform, suspecting that the leadership's main interest was to ensure it will be the chair of ASEAN in 2014.

"My guess is that the regime is calculating exactly how far it can go to get all of these things it is looking for without going too far to accommodate the political opposition," Lohman said.


China to maintain property curbs: vice-premier

BEIJING, November 28, 2011 (AFP) - China will maintain restrictions on the property market, Vice Premier Li Keqiang has said, despite growing speculation that curbs could be eased to prevent a damaging slump in prices.

Real estate sales and prices have been falling nationwide due to tough restrictions on purchases and bank lending, fuelling fears that the market could collapse and send debt-laden property developers to the wall.

China's property market was "in a key stage" and restrictions needed to stay in place to "promote the healthy development" of the sector, the official Xinhua news agency quoted Li as saying Sunday.

"We must maintain policies to prevent property prices from rising overly fast and further consolidate the results of the controls," Li said.

China has introduced a range of measures aimed at bringing down property prices in the last year, such as bans on buying second homes in some cities, hiking minimum down-payments for buyers and introducing property taxes.

A surge in bank lending in recent years has fuelled investment in the real estate sector and pushed property prices out of the reach of many ordinary Chinese, angering people struggling to buy their first home.

The government would maintain restrictions and step up construction of low-cost housing to "satisfy the multiple and diversified housing needs of the public", Li said.

Li's remarks echoed those of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who recently said house prices should return to "reasonable levels" before policies are eased.

Renmin University in Beijing said last week it expected the government to relax some property market curbs next year due to concerns that slumping prices could hurt growth in the world's second largest economy.

Cash-strapped local governments are heavily reliant on revenue from land sales, and the central government will likely intervene to prevent property prices from falling more than 25 percent, it said in a report.

Property investment is also a contributor to economic growth, so Beijing might act to help ensure gross domestic product growth -- which creates jobs and prevents social unrest -- remains strong, it said.

Official data showed the number of major Chinese cities posting a drop in home prices doubled to 34 in October from September, in a sign efforts to cool the country's surging property market are working.