Activists hurl stink bombs at Japan whaling ship

TOKYO, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - Anti-whaling activists threw paint and foul smelling acid at a whaling ship in the Antarctic ocean Saturday in a fresh bid to halt the annual hunt, officials said.

Two boats belonging to the US-based environmental group Sea Shepherd approached the Japanese whaling vessel Yushin Maru No. 2 (YS2) and launched 40 bottles containing paint and butyric acid, Japan's Fisheries Agency said.

"YS2 gave warnings, by voice and water cannon, to the obstructive activities," the agency said in a press release, adding that the ship also floated buoys to deter the activists' boats.

None of the YS2 crew was injured but the ship's hull was smeared with the targeted acid and paint.

The agency called Sea Shepherd's actions "extremely dangerous acts which threaten the safety of our country's vessels and the life of its crew".

The Sea Shepherd launched similar attacks against Japanese whaling fleet earlier this month.

Sea Shepherd said three of its members were injured when Japanese crewmen used grappling hooks and bamboo poles to deter them in a high seas clash on Wednesday.

On January 7, three activists from another environmental group Forest Rescue Australia boarded another whaling boat Shonan Maru.

Japan only agreed to hand the men over after intervention from Canberra, and they were returned to Australia later by a border protection vessel.

The Japanese whaling fleet, led by the 720-tonne Yushin Maru, was seen leaving the Japanese port of Shimonoseki on December 6 for the annual hunt, with security measures beefed up after clashes in previous years.

Their mission is officially said to be for "scientific research", with the fleet aiming to catch around 900 minke and fin whales, according to a plan submitted by the government to the International Whaling Commission.

Hollywood v Silicon Valley in US piracy battle

LOS ANGELES, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - The anti-piracy battle gripping Washington and the Internet pits two US West Coast power bases directly against each other: Hollywood is taking on Silicon Valley over the right to make money online.

Backing two controversial pieces of draft anti-piracy legislation, the Los Angeles-based entertainment industry is calling for non-US websites to be held to the same standards as US ones.

But a couple of hundred miles up the coast, the giants at Google and Facebook are resisting at all costs moves which they claim will stifle development of the Internet -- on which their own future, and income, depends.

On Friday, US congressional leaders put anti-online piracy legislation on hold following a wave of protests led by Google and Wikipedia denouncing the bills as a threat to Internet freedom.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said he was delaying next week's vote on the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith said he would "revisit" the House version, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

In a joint statement Friday, the American Federation of Musicians, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Screen Actors Guild and other entertainment industry groups called on US lawmakers not to bow to pressure.

"We fought for this legislation because illegal Internet businesses that locate offshore expressly to elude US laws should not escape the very same rules of law that currently apply to illegal US websites," they said.

"They should not be allowed to reap in profits if they knowingly sell or distribute illicitly gained content and goods which they had no role in creating or financing to the American consumer," they added.

The draft legislation has won the backing of Hollywood, the music industry, entertainment giants like Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., angered at the enormous income lost from online streaming and downloads of their products.

But the bills have come under fire from online companies and digital rights groups for allegedly paving the way for US authorities to shut down websites accused of online piracy, including foreign sites, without due process.

"We want a world in which creators are properly compensated for their work, everybody is in favor of that," Corynne McSherry, lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which promotes free speech online.

But "the right answer to that is not legislation, that's never going to happen in Washington DC, it has to happen via innovation, not legislation," she told AFP.

And she said: "Fighting the internet doesn't work. The answer is to embrace a new business model, that's the only thing that ever worked."

She cited the case of VCR technology, followed by DVDs, which were initially fiercely resisted by Hollywood, but in the end were accepted and turned into a huge new source of revenue.

The six-strong Hollywood grouping acknowledged that the question is complex.

"We recognize that we are currently part of a complex and important debate about the future, not just of the Internet but also of creativity, the American economy, free expression, and a civil society," its statement said Friday.

"We hope a new tone can be set that does not include website attacks, blacklists, blackouts, and lies. We believe an Internet that does not allow outright stealing has to be the Internet of the future or all the promises it holds will be unrealized."

On Wednesday, the English-language version of its online encyclopedia shut down for 24 hours to protest the legislation and hundreds of other sites joined in the protest.

On Thursday, US authorities shut down Megaupload.com, one of the world's largest file-sharing sites, and charged seven people in what they called one of "the largest criminal copyright cases ever brought by the United States."

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) said last week that the US government has to act.

"On behalf of the 2.2 million Americans whose jobs depend on the film and television industries we look forward to the administration ... working with us to pass legislation that will offer real protection for American jobs," it said.

But EFF lawyer McSherry was not convinced, saying the entertainment industry needs "a new leadership that is more focus on innovation than saving yesterday's industry."

Obama promises 'blueprint for actions' to improve economy

WASHINGTON, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama promised  Saturday to present a "blueprint for actions" to improve the country's economy and business climate, as he prepared for a major address to the nation next week.

Obama will deliver his nationally-televised State of the Union Address before members of both chambers of Congress on Tuesday.

In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president said that his State of the Union speech will contain a plan to strengthen the US economy.

"On Tuesday evening, I'll deliver my State of the Union Address, where I'll lay out my blueprint for actions we need to take together - not just me, or Congress, but every American - to rebuild an economy where hard work and responsibility are rewarded. An economy that's built to last," Obama said.

"In the meantime, I'm going to keep doing everything I can to make this country not only the best place to visit and do business - but the best place to live and work and build a better life," he added.

The comments came after Obama on Thursday unveiled a proposal to boost jobs in the crucial electoral swing state of Florida and elsewhere by easing visa restrictions for new armies of middle class tourists from booming developing nations like China, India and Brazil.

The president underscored the importance of this proposal again on Saturday, saying Americans want more visitors coming to the United States and spending more money in the country.

"It's good for our economy, and it will help provide the boost more businesses need to grow and hire," he said.

The president promised to continue to work with Congress, states and business leaders to find ways to move this country forward.

But he warned that he would act alone if other branches of government or the business community refused to cooperate.

"Where they can't act or won't act, I will," Obama said.

Online ad revenue overtakes newsprint in China

BEIJING, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - China's revenue from online advertising was higher than the equivalent in newsprint for the first time in 2011, a study by the market research firm iResearch said, quoted in the Global Times Saturday.

Web advertising in the world's second largest economy generated 51.19 billion yuan ($8.11 billion), while newsprint advertising brought in 45.36 billion yuan, iResearch said, a trend it predicted would continue in 2012.

The three largest advertising platform providers last year in terms of revenue, according to Beijing-based iResearch, were Baidu, dominant on the Chinese market, followed by Taobao's e-commerce sites and search engine Google.

At the end of 2011, there were 513 million internet users in China, up by 56 million over one year. Some 194 million made purchases online -- an increase of 20.8%, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

In the third term of 2011, online ad revenue increased by 83.1% compared to the same period in 2010, Analysis International said, reported by state media in November.

China press crackdown intensifies in 2011: media group

HONG KONG, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - China tightened restrictions on the media last year in response to domestic calls for greater openness and popular uprisings in the Middle East, a journalists' association said Saturday.

Reporting freedoms granted around the 2008 Beijing Olympics were rolled back and scores of journalists, bloggers, rights lawyers and activists were "illegally detained and tortured", the group said in a new report.

"Press freedom in China suffered significant setbacks in 2011," the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said.

"As the scent of the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa drifted towards China, central authorities tightened restrictions on the press and stepped up intimidation of journalists."

Journalists and bloggers were killed, assaulted, jailed and forced into exile for doing their duties, particularly after reporting on alleged corruption.

Several investigative magazines were forced to shut down the report said.

Regulations on reporting for foreign media were suddenly tightened, and censorship directives were delivered verbally in order to avoid outside scrutiny.

Journalists were ordered not to report on weekly pro-democracy protests that took place in several cities around mainland China in February, as well as the Wenzhou train crash in July.

Sixteen reporters were known to have been forced out of their jobs but this was only the "tip of the iceberg", report author Serenade Woo told a press conference in Hong Kong.

"We believe a lot more (were forced to leave their workplaces) but we can't figure out the entire number," she said.

The situation could deteriorate as authorities seek to silence dissent ahead of a Communist Party congress later in 2012 which will select a new generation of leaders.

"Whenever there is a leadership change they have a duty to make sure society is stable. They do not allow any kind of so-called instability," Woo said.

Seoul awaits Chinese bonanza for Lunar New Year

SEOUL, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - South Korean businesses are sprucing up to receive Chinese tourists during the Lunar New Year holidays, hoping the free-spending visitors bring a welcome boon to their otherwise slow business.

Shops, hotels and restaurants in downtown Seoul put up new signs and banners inscribed with New Year greetings in Chinese, rearranged displays and hired Chinese speaking interpreters.

"Sales to Chinese tourists tripled in the past two years. This contributed greatly to the increase in our overall sales," a spokesman for Lotte Duty Free shop in the busy Myeongdong commercial district said Saturday on YTN TV.

Lotte Duty Free reported 2011 sales of 1.02 trillion won ($895 million), up 23 percent from the previous year, as a surge in Chinese customers was more than enough to make up for a fall in sales to South Koreans.

"I bought some Korean cosmetic products, a rice cooker and some other home appliances," one Chinese tourist said, adding she spent some $3,500 at the duty free shop alone.

A shopkeeper selling bags at Seoul's famous South Gate open-air market said the free-spending Chinese were his best customers.

"Chinese tourists are big spenders. Some snap up 10 bags at a time," the 56-year-old man, identified only as Mr. Lee, told the Chosun Ilbo daily.

A manager at a Myeongdong clothes shop said he had changed layouts to suit to Chinese tastes and put up a sign saying "Chinese translation available."

"Some of them buy a whole bunch of clothes worth a million or two million won at one go," he told the daily.

Chinese are also visiting Seoul clinics for plastic surgery during the holidays.

"We usually have six to seven Chinese patients a month, but we have the same number of Chinese during the week of Lunar New Year holidays," a clinic official told the Chosun.

Seoul's embassy in China said 1.54 million Chinese had visited South Korea in the first nine months to September last year, making South Korea the main destination for Chinese tourists, excluding Hong Kong and Macau.

Until 2010, Japan was the favourite with Chinese tourists before it was hit by a devastating tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in 2011, according to the embassy.

TEPCO 'to be nationalised' for at least 10 years: report

TOKYO, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - The operator of Japan's crippled nuclear power plant will be effectively nationalised for at least 10 years under a plan to provide it with money to fund compensation payouts, a report said Saturday.

The funding from a public body is expected to inject one trillion yen ($13 billion) into Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), effectively putting it under state control, Kyodo reported quoting sources close to the matter.

The scheme is expected to be included in a comprehensive business plan to be finalised in March by TEPCO and the fund, named the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, the report said.

Under the plan TEPCO will remain as a listed company, it added.

The funding body will receive money from special government bonds and contributions from other utilities which have nuclear power plants in Japan.

The business plan is aimed at preventing TEPCO from becoming insolvent due to the heavy costs stemming from the world's worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 left more than 19,000 dead or missing and crippled nuclear reactors at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi plant into meltdown in Japan's northeast.

A government panel has estimated claims from victims affected by the Fukushima crisis could reach 4.5 trillion yen by 2013.

The plan is also intended to ensure that compensation payments related to the accident are swiftly made, Kyodo said.

Once TEPCO starts to generate net profits, the company is expected to be urged to pay back the financial assistance, Kyodo quoted sources as saying.

(TEPCO) will aim to get into the black in the year to March 2014 by raising household electricity charges and reactivate its idle nuclear reactors from early 2013, the news agency added.

It is hoped that TEPCO would be able to exit effective state control as early as in March 2022.

Commenting on the report, TEPCO spokeswoman Megumi Iwashita said, "Nothing has been decided up to date."

Hong Kong freezes $42 mln in Megaupload raids

HONG KONG, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - Hong Kong Customs officers have raided offices, domestic premises and luxury hotel suites as part of a worldwide FBI Internet piracy investigation into file-sharing site Megaupload.com.

One hundred officers took part in the raids Friday which seized a large amount of digital evidence and uncovered about HK$330 million ($42 million) in suspected crime proceeds, Customs said.

"The assets have been frozen in accordance with related ordinances. The operation is ongoing," it said in a statement.

Officers raided hotel suites costing HK$100,000 a day equipped with high-speed servers and large television screens which were suspected to be connected to the case.

Megaupload's website was shut down Thursday by US authorities who accuse it of one of the largest cases of copyright theft ever.

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, also known as Kim Schmitz, is being held in New Zealand following a police raid there.

The 37-year-old German citizen, who has New Zealand and Hong Kong residency, was denied bail with three other men on Friday when they appeared in an Auckland district court.

New Zealand police seized luxury cars worth NZ$6.0 million ($4.8 million), including a 1959 pink Cadillac and a Rolls Royce Phantom, in a raid on Dotcom's Auckland mansion.

The US Justice Department and FBI have indicted a total of seven people who they said were "responsible for massive worldwide online piracy of numerous types of copyrighted works, through Megaupload.com and other related sites".

The accused generated more than $175 million in criminal proceeds and caused more than $500 million in harm to copyright owners by offering pirated copies of movies, TV programmes and other content, according to a statement.

The Hong Kong Customs said it had been conducting a joint investigation with the FBI targeting the criminal activities of the syndicate since the end of 2010.
Megaupload itself is registered as a private company in Hong Kong, with an office in Wanchai district.

The dramatic raids came amid a fierce debate in the United States over a proposed bill before Congress aimed at cracking down on online piracy.

Critics say the new law would hand US authorities unprecedented powers that could impinge on the freedom of the Internet, and on Wednesday dozens of websites led by Wikipedia went dark in a rare protest.

In face of the criticism, US Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid Friday agreed to delay next week's vote on the bill to allow more time for talks.

"We made good progress through the discussions we've held in recent days, and I am optimistic that we can reach a compromise in the coming weeks," he said.

The European Union's top Internet official Neelie Kroes also criticised the planned US legislation, writing on Twitter that: "Internet regulation must be effective, proportionate & preserve benefits of open net."

"Speeding is illegal too: but you don't put speed bumps on the motorway," she added.

The prosecution of Megaupload meanwhile sparked a retaliatory cyber attack on the FBI and Justice Department websites.

The two government sites were up and running again early Friday after being shut down for several hours in the attack claimed by the "Anonymous" hacktivist group, which also briefly disabled music and recording industry websites.

Megaupload is popular with Hollywood celebrities and has been endorsed by music stars such as Kanye West.

Megaupload Ltd. and another company, Vestor Ltd., were indicted by a US grand jury and charged with racketeering conspiracy, copyright infringement and conspiring to commit money laundering.

Vestor's sole shareholder is Kim Dotcom. His six fellow accused come from Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands and Slovakia.

Renowned Chinese painter Fu Baoshi takes on US

NEW YORK, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - Revered Chinese modern painter Fu Baoshi's life was an epic journey -- literally and figuratively -- but only now, with retrospectives in the United States, has his powerfully emotional body of work traveled as far as the West.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday opens "Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965)," an exhibition that seeks to put this giant of Chinese culture on the international map.

"He's not a household name over here, but in China everyone knows his name," said Maxwell Hearn, curator of the show. "He's the Van Gogh or Monet of modern China."

Featuring 90 works that had never before been taken outside China, the exhibit, which first showed last year at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is being given red carpet treatment by the Met.

Hearn, accompanied by Gong Liang, director of the Nanjing Museum, which is loaning the works, could not contain his excitement at this "wonderful way to introduce modern Chinese art to New York."

For sure, Fu is a Chinese master. His ink paintings reflect his nation's ancient fascination for the mountains, waterfalls and gorges of the vast land. His early figures depict classical scenes of poets and nobles.

Yet in a short life between 1904 and 1965, Fu enriched this essential Chinese character with layers of unexpected influences.

The first was a formative trip as a youngish man to Japan between 1932 and 1935, then on the cusp of the Japanese invasion of China.

Although the enemy, Japan was also admired by the Chinese for its comparative sophistication and it was there that Fu, virtually unschooled in art, finally immersed himself in Japanese and Western artistic developments.

The startling result of his transformation is illustrated between the first and second rooms of the Met exhibit.

In the first, hang Fu's competent, but two-dimensional landscapes. In the next, post-Japan, his work erupts in dreamy, romantic and soulful paintings unrecognizable as products of the same hand.

Fu remained driven by the spirits of his artistic ancestors. Chief among those was a poet named Qu Yuan who committed suicide in the 3rd century BC and whom Fu seems to have deeply loved.

Among his business endeavors was carving the stone seals that Chinese used to stamp papers in place of signatures, and on one of these, just the size of a few sugar cubes, Fu somehow etched in an amazing 2,765 characters.

The tiny inscriptions are the entire text of Qu Yuan's poem "Li Sao," or "On Encountering Sorrow."

In a startlingly moody painting, Fu also portrayed the poet before he commits suicide by diving into a river clutching heavy stones. Fu adopted the name Baoshi, which means "embracing stones."

Although high-minded, Fu was well grounded when it came to surviving -- and growing artistically -- through his country's next calamity: the communist revolution.

On the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, traditional artists fell out of favor. State ideologists wanted everyone, including painters, to serve the revolution and to reject the country's feudal past.

Fu shifted, while staying true to his roots.

A little more color crept into his paintings, with more than a hint of red, and his subject matter turned to revolutionary themes of soldiers and industry. However, the ethereal, mythical style remained unchanged, creating a unique blend.

He pleased revolutionary leader Mao Zedong by depicting his poems, but there was never a hint of Soviet-style social realism. Even a coal mine landscape or a painting based on a propaganda photograph of Mao swimming across the Yangtze River are filled with Fu's spirit.

Hearn said Fu's ability to compromise was a skill contemporary Chinese artists -- particularly since the revolutions of the Arab Spring -- must also master if they want to work. "They must not transgress some unseen and ever-changing line of what is not acceptable."

Megaupload: a boon to users but a bane for copyright holders - Facts

PARIS, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - The website Megaupload.com, which was shut down by US authorities over copyright violations, is among the world's most popular filesharing and streaming websites with a reported 50 million users a day.

But for copyright holders in the music, television or film industry, the website embodies theft and piracy of cultural works.
Here are some facts about the website:

What kinds of services does Megaupload offer?

The Hong Kong-based site and its different domains such as MegaVideo, offers to host files for free or for a fee if they exceed a certain size.
All kinds of files are can be uploaded including music, film, books or software files. Once they are online, they can be downloaded by other users for free.

The website also offers streaming of films and television series, much like YouTube or Dailymotion. Streaming is a more popular practice as it is not illegal, contrary to downloading.

Is Megaupload unique?

Dozens of other websites offer exactly the same kind of filesharing service, such as Rapidshare, Filesonic, Fileserve or Depositfiles. However, Megaupload has become the most popular of them all as it is easy to use.

In a promotional video broadcast on line in December (http://youtu.be/lki9CVQtKTc), Megaupload claims to have 50 million users a day.

According to Google figures posted in July 2011, the filesharing site was the 91st most visited website in the world with 34 million unique visitors and 500 million page views.

MegaVideo was at 129th place with 26 million unique visitors and 300 million page views.

Are all Megaupload content illegal?
The site undoubtedly hosts some legal content. Popular with Hollywood celebrities, music stars such as Kanye West and Will.i.am count among music stars who appeared in its promotional video.

Nevertheless, it is clear that among the content are files that have been shared illegally.

In its defence, the website said it was impossible for it to check everything it hosts.

US authorities has charged that the website generated more than $175 million in criminal proceeds and caused more than $500 million in harm to copyright owners by offering pirated copies of movies, TV programmes and other content.

US Congress puts online piracy bills on hold

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - US congressional leaders put anti-online piracy legislation on hold Friday following a wave of protests led by Google and Wikipedia denouncing the bills as a threat to Internet freedom.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said he was delaying next week's vote on the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith said he would "revisit" the House version, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

"In light of recent events, I have decided to postpone Tuesday's vote on the Protect IP Act," Reid announced in a statement two days after a wave of online protests against the bill swept the Internet.

"There is no reason that the legitimate issues raised by many about this bill cannot be resolved," the Democrat from Nevada added. "I am optimistic that we can reach a compromise in the coming weeks."

Smith, a Republican from Texas, said he would postpone consideration of the House bill in committee "until there is wider agreement on a solution."

"I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy," Smith said.

"It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products," he said.

The announcements by Reid and Smith came amid eroding congressional support for the bills intended to crack down on online piracy of movies and music and the sale of counterfeit goods.

Wikipedia shut down the English-language version of its online encyclopedia for 24 hours Wednesday to protest the legislation and hundreds of other sites joined in the protest.

Google blotted out the logo on its US home page with a black banner and published an exhortation to users to "Tell Congress: Please don't censor the Web!"

Google said more than seven million people in the United States had signed an online petition against the bills.

The draft legislation has won the backing of Hollywood, the music industry, entertainment giants like Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce and others.

But the bills have come under fire from online companies and digital rights groups for allegedly paving the way for US authorities to shut down websites accused of online piracy, including foreign sites, without due process.

On Thursday, US authorities shut down Megaupload.com, one of the world's largest file-sharing sites, and charged seven people in what they called one of "the largest criminal copyright cases ever brought by the United States."

The shutdown of Megaupload triggered a wave of retaliatory attacks by the online hacktivist group Anonymous, which temporarily disabled the websites of the Justice Department, FBI and Recording Industry Association of America.

In his statement, Reid said "counterfeiting and piracy cost the American economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs each year, with the movie industry alone supporting over 2.2 million jobs.

"We must take action to stop these illegal practices," he said. "We live in a country where people rightfully expect to be fairly compensated for a day's work."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that Congress needs to find a solution "that both deals with online piracy and continues to ensure a free and open Internet."

The decision to delay the bills was welcomed by a wide range of groups.

"There is more still to be done to ensure the bills do no harm to technology innovation and the growth of the Internet," said Robert Holleyman, president and chief executive of the Business Software Alliance.

"Millions of Internet users let it be known that their rights and use of the Internet should not be easily tampered with, and Congress has wisely signaled  it has heard their concerns," said Ed Black, president and chief executive of the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

In a joint statement, the American Federation of Musicians, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Screen Actors Guild and other groups said they hoped there would be a "new tone" in the debate going forward.

"We would hope a new tone can be set that does not pit the creativity and innovation of our directors, actors, performers, craftspeople, and technicians against those innovators in other industries," they said.

"We believe an Internet that does not allow outright stealing has to be the Internet of the future or all the promises it holds will be unrealized."

Megaupload latest target of US anti-piracy campaign

WASHINGTON, January 21, 2012 (AFP) - File-sharing website Megaupload is the most high-profile target yet of a US campaign which has seen the seizure of hundreds of sites accused of offering pirated music or movies or counterfeit goods.

The US authorities have seized more than 350 website domain names since launching an anti-online piracy campaign dubbed "Operation In Our Sites" more than 18 months ago.

A US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency spokesman said Friday the shutdown of Megaupload was an operation led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and not formally part of "Operation In Our Sites."

But the ICE spokesman said it was in line with the campaign against online piracy which began in June 2010 with the closure of 10 sites offering pirated movies, some within hours of their release in theaters.

A founder of NinjaVideo.net, one of the websites snared in the first phase of "Operation In Our Sites," was sentenced to 14 months in prison Friday for allowing illegal downloads of copyright-protected movies and TV programs.

Matthew David Howard Smith, 24, of North Carolina, was one of four people facing prison terms in connection with NinjaVideo.net, which reaped $500,000 during its two-and-a-half years of operation, according to US officials.

Megaupload, however, operated on a different scale entirely, according to the US Justice Department and FBI, generating more than $175 million in criminal proceeds and causing more than $500 million in harm to copyright owners.

"Operation In Our Sites" has targeted websites offering not only pirated movies like NinjaVideo.net but also music, software, clothes, electronics, games and counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

In the largest single seizure to date, in November 2011, the US authorities closed down 150 sites found to be selling counterfeit merchandise.

A November 2010 operation targeted 82 websites selling mostly Chinese-made counterfeit goods, including golf clubs, Walt Disney movies, handbags, scarves, shoes, sunglasses and other items.

Among the sites whose domain names have been seized are cheapscarfshop.com, Burberryoutletshop.com, louisvuitton-bags-forcheap.com, dvdcollectionsale.com, handbagcom.com and mydreamwatches.com.

A visitor to the sites is met with a message reading: "This site has been seized by ICE -- Homeland Security Investigations, pursuant to a seizure warrant issued by a United States District Court."

It informs visitors that copyright infringement is a federal crime carrying a penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while trafficking in counterfeit goods carries a 10-year sentence and a $2 million fine.

According to US officials, of the 350 domain names seized since June 2010, 116 have been forfeited to the US government following a legal process which allows for the owner of a seized domain to petition the move in federal court.

If no petition is forthcoming, the domain becomes US government property.

As part of their investigation, US agents purchase goods from the sites to determine whether they are counterfeit and obtain seizure orders for the domain names from US magistrate judges, according to US officials.

Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said "Operation In Our Sites" and the Megaupload.com shutdown raise free speech and other issues.

"What about the users?" McSherry asked. "I don't think there was any question that there was at least some, perhaps a lot, I don't know, of perfectly lawful content on the Megaupload site.

"And if I'm your average user and I just lost my vacation photos I'd be pretty upset," McSherry said.

"I have lot of concerns about the US government seizing sites in general but one of them is the collateral damage for regular folks who are just trying to back up their CD collection," the lawyer for the San Francisco-based EFF said.

"It seems to me that whether or not there was due process for Megaupload or not, there certainly wasn't due process for all of Megaupload's users," she said.

McSherry also welcomed a decision Friday by leaders of the US Congress, in the face of online protests, to put on hold legislation that would have given increased powers to US law enforcement to combat online piracy.

"I hope that Congress is really going to take note, not just postponing but hopefully killing these bills," she said.

Leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives said Friday they would delay consideration of the bills which Google, Wikipedia and other Web giants have denounced as a threat to Internet freedom.


Western brands aim for China's 'Dragon' riches

HONG KONG, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - It's meant to bring riches and power befitting an emperor, but if Western luxury brands have their way the Year of the Dragon will cost their wealthy Chinese customers a fortune instead.

Monday is the start of the Year of the Dragon, the most favourable and revered sign in the 12-year Chinese zodiac.

The dragon is a traditional Chinese symbol of royalty, fortune and power, and the Year of the Dragon usually sees a spike in marriages and births.

Western manufacturers of luxury goods, from cars to watches and chocolates, are hoping the new year also brings a spike in sales to help offset soft demand in Europe and the United States.

"The dragon means good fortune, power and success," says Torsten Muller-Otvos, chief executive at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, the German-owned automaker which has launched a line of limited edition "Dragon" Phantoms.

The edition, available in two models, features hand-painted golden dragons on the side panels, hand-embroidered dragons on the leather headrests and illuminated door treadplates with the words "Year of the Dragon 2012".

The car, which starts at 7.4 million yuan (US$1.2 million) in China, was sold out within eight weeks of its launch in August, and the firm says it is now looking at extending production.

China overtook the United States to become Rolls-Royce's largest market in 2011, with the Chinese market accounting for about one-third of its record 3,538 cars sold worldwide.

"We will make 2012 the next record year for Rolls-Royce, the dragon will help us to make that happen," Muller-Otvos told AFP on a recent trip to Hong Kong.

China is the world's fastest-growing market for luxury products thanks to years of stellar economic growth which has created a new class of super-rich consumers that are changing the face of Asia.

Forbes magazine said China had a total of 146 billionaires last year -- up 14 percent from 2010, and second only to the United States with 413.

Italian fashion house Versace's Dragon Year gambit is a specially designed jewel handbag, which comes with a gold handle and traditional golden dragon drawings on a black body. The bag is limited to 210 pieces and sold exclusively in Asia.

The bag is priced at HK$31,800 (US$4,094), while an even more exclusive red python skin version will set you back HK$45,000. Versace says the product is "testament to the brand's focus on the Asian market".

French high-end accessory maker ST Dupont has rolled out pens and lighters adorned with gold-plated dragons decorated with 88 diamonds -- the number eight is another auspicious sign for Chinese. It's not something genuine buyers would ask, but if you must know they are priced at between HK$300,100 and HK$390,700.

Swiss luxury watchmaker Piaget meanwhile has launched 24 Dragon watches with a price range from HK$193,000 to HK$16 million.

"The legendary Dragon and Phoenix collection is to celebrate the coming Year of the Dragon, and as a tribute to the rich culture proffered by Chinese heritage to the world," Piaget Asia Pacific president Dimitri Gouten told AFP.

"The response to the collection has been very good as we are seeing important sales in Asia but also in our key boutiques in Europe and the US."

Analysts say the special Dragon releases are as much about marketing foreign brands to the Chinese as making direct sales.

"It shows the commitment of the brands to China, something consumers do care about when choosing which brand to buy year round," Shanghai-based McKinsey analyst Yuval Atsmon said.

McKinsey has forecast luxury sales in China to grow 18 percent annually to $27 billion by 2015, or more than one-fifth of the global luxury market, overtaking Japan.

"It is just another example of how Greater China demand is very important to brands now," brokerage CLSA retail analyst Mariana Kou said, referring to mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau markets.

"That's why they are trying to come out with more interesting ideas to cater to that customer base."

China's economy start new year weak

SHANGHAI, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - China's manufacturing activity shrank for the third straight month in January, data showed Friday, leading analysts to warn of of a further slowdown for the world's number two economy.

HSBC's preliminary purchasing managers' index (PMI) stood at 48.8 in January, up only marginally from 48.7 in December, the British banking giant said.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion while a reading below 50 suggests a contraction.

The news come days after the government released data showing the economy grew 9.2 percent last year, well down from the 10.4 percent growth in 2010, while most forecasts put this year's expansion at between just 8.0 percent and 8.5 percent.

However, some analysts believe it could slow even more in the first quarter, with growth even dipping below the 8.0 percent level considered necessary to maintain jobs and contain social unrest.

"The third consecutive below-50 reading of the manufacturing PMI suggested that growth is likely to moderate further," Qu Hongbin, HSBC chief economist for China, said in a statement.

The country's manufacturing activity contracted in November for the first time in 33 months, according to separate figures previously released by the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing.

"The ongoing slowdown of investment and exports implies more headwinds to growth," Qu said.

China's economy grew 8.9 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter, the government said this week, slowing from 9.1 percent in the third quarter, due to weaker exports amid turbulence in Europe and the United States.

The country's exports rose 20.3 percent for all of last year, slowing dramatically from growth of 31.3 percent in 2010, to $1.899 trillion.

Urban fixed asset investment -- a measure of government spending on infrastructure -- rose at a slightly slower pace of 23.8 percent last year, figures released this week showed.

Swiss investment bank UBS forecast China's gross domestic product (GDP) growth could slow to less than 8.0 percent in the first quarter.

"We expect exports to weaken substantially and property construction to decelerate further in the next few months, dragging down GDP growth," Hong Kong-based UBS economist Wang Tao said in a report Thursday.

China's property market is slowing after the government took aim at speculation over the last year by banning purchases of second homes, hiking minimum down-payments and introducing property taxes in select cities.

Home prices in nearly three-quarters of China's major cities -- 52 out of 70 tracked by the government -- fell in December from November, the government said this week.

The key to maintaining growth will be credit easing combined with efforts to spur domestic consumption as exports slow, analysts said.

In a bid to boost growth and counter turmoil in the key export markets of Europe and the United States, China in December cut the amount of money banks must hold in reserve for the first time in three years.

"We expect more policy easing to stabilise growth," said Qu of HSBC.

The government is also keen to have domestic consumption play a greater role in powering the economy, allowing consumers to buy up the goods produced by the nation's millions of factories.

"However, demand -- especially domestic demand -- is not strong enough to reduce inventories and it is still affected by the overall economic environment," said Zhang Xinfa, an analyst at Galaxy Securities in Beijing.

Retail sales, a key indicator of consumer spending, rose 17.1 percent in 2011, slightly slower than in 2010, figures releases this week showed.

Chinese stocks were higher after the PMI announcement, as investors still believe that China will not suffer a "hard landing" of its economy, dealers said. The benchmark Shanghai index closed up 1.0 percent.

Camera-less iPhone 4, iPhone 4S on sale in Singapore

SINGAPORE, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - The camera is normally a big selling point, but in Singapore Apple's iPhone 4 and 4S are now available without the function -- to cater to military personnel banned from taking image-capturing devices into army camps.

Some camera enthusiasts claim the quality of the cameras built into the latest iPhone models has replaced the need to carry a compact.

But Singapore mobile operator M1 on Friday unveiled no-camera versions adapted to the requirements of the defence ministry.

Camera phones were banned in the city state's military installations in 2007 after photos of sensitive training activities were posted online.
"The phones are targeted at military personnel but anyone can buy them if they want to," an M1 spokesman said.

Prices listed on M1's website showed that adapted versions of the iPhone cost Sg$49 ($38) more.

Singapore's other two operators, SingTel and StarHub, said they were also in talks with the defence ministry on offering no-camera smartphones.

Affluent Singapore, one of Asia's most tech-savvy countries, maintains a conscript-based military and its armed forces are among the best-equipped in Asia.

Romanian diplomat trial over Singapore car crash postponed

BUCHAREST, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - The trial of a former Romanian diplomat accused of manslaughter after a deadly 2009 car crash in Singapore was postponed until February 1 due to "technical problems", the court said Friday.

The court was expected to look at video evidence on Friday.

Silviu Ionescu, a former Romanian charge d'affaires in Singapore, is accused of hitting three pedestrians in two separate car accidents in December 2009 while driving a car belonging to the Romanian mission.

One pedestrian, a 30-year-old Malaysian national, suffered brain damage and died.

Ionescu has repeatedly denied he was the driver and says the car was stolen.

Though the accident took place in Singapore, the ex-diplomat is being tried in his home country. His trial started in October 2010.

On Wednesday, he asked the Singapore authorities to encourage a key witness to testify in court.

According to Ionescu, this witness told the police in Singapore that he  had stopped the car after the accident, spoken to the driver and had claimed that Ionescu was at the wheel. But he has so far refused to testify in court and is not obliged to do so under Singapore law, Ionescu added.

Ionescu, who fled the country shortly after the hit-and-run accident, has repeatedly denied he was the driver and says the car was stolen.

"The Singapore authorities have rendered all assistance permissible under our laws requested by the Romanian authorities in connection with the trial of Dr Ionescu", the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Tokyo bourse to keep scandal-hit Olympus listed

TOKYO, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - The Tokyo bourse will keep the shares of Olympus listed despite a scandal that has tainted global confidence in Japanese corporate governance, the stock exchange said Friday.

The Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) said it will instead designate the company's stock as "on alert" from Saturday, while slapping it with a fine of 10 million yen ($130,000) for damaging investor confidence.

Olympus has admitted that it used over-priced acquisitions and consultancy fees to hide losses it had made on earlier investments, and it had been threatened with de-listing, which could have crippled it financially.

"The inappropriate accounting practices had generally no effect on sales or operating profit," the TSE said in a statement.

"The exchange did not consider that (the improper accounting) had distorted investors' judgment to the extent to which delisting should be imposed."

Olympus shares plunged after the scandal came to light in October, at one point down more than 80 percent, before recovering to 1,199 yen on Friday -- still only about half their value beforehand.

Some market participants expressed concern that similar scandals could recur if a severe penalty was not imposed.

"This is a question of what is acceptable behaviour for a TSE-listed company," David Baran, co-chief executive at Symphony Financial Partners, a Tokyo-based fund with $200 million under management, told Dow Jones Newswires.

"I don't understand why the TSE has to be the bailout mechanism for poor governance and poor due diligence on the part of the company and the investors."

Simon Wong, a partner at Governance for Owners LLP, a UK-based investment group, told Dow Jones Newswires that Olympus still needed to enhance corporate governance and restore customer confidence.

"I think maintaining its listing is only one of many critical issues that Olympus needs to address," he said.

Olympus has launched legal action against 19 current and former board members, including current president Shuichi Takayama, demanding a combined $47 million in damages after an independent panel found them culpable in the cover-up.

The firm has also sued five members of an internal auditing board after another independent investigation found they bore some of the responsibility for the scandal, demanding one billion yen ($13 million) in total.

Japanese, British and US authorities have launched investigations into the firm, with Tokyo prosecutors, police and regulators raiding its headquarters last month and questioning former executives over the alleged fraud.

If a company's stock is placed on alert it has to submit annual reports to the TSE on how it is improving its internal controls, and its shares are delisted if there is no improvement in three years.

Chinese 'Red Pad' reserved for nation's top officials

SHANGHAI, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - For the communist cadre who has everything, a shadowy Chinese company is offering a $1,590 tablet computer called the "Red Pad" reserved for the nation's top officials.

The pricey device, whose existence was publicised by state media this week, has drawn mocking comparisons to Apple's iPad from Chinese netizens.

"The iPad is a symbol of fashion, is this pad a symbol of bigwigs?" read a posting by Vicin Zheng Jun through the popular Sina microblog service.

Red is the colour of China's Communist Party and in the political context refers to someone who is patriotic.

Red Pad Technology, reported to have links to China's powerful Ministry of Information Industry, will not sell the product to the public but only bureaucrats, state media said.

The Red Pad, called the "mobile business platform" for officials, has features such as access to internal documents, the musings of top leaders and a database of government contact information.

But the company selling the Red Pad appears to have grown publicity shy with its official website no longer accessible.

Chinese bloggers said only government officials could afford the tablet since they have access to state funds and illegal sources of income gained through their powerful positions.

"Your products should be aimed at those customers who do not spend their own money," said another microblog posting by Su Hailei.

In what appeared to be a joke, a seller on China's largest online shopping platform Taobao was offering a "Black Pad" at a cheaper $160 price, saying it beat the Red Pad "used by corrupt officials".

Sega seeks stream of success with 'Toylet' games

TOKYO, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - Japanese games maker Sega is pushing beyond living rooms and barging into bar bathrooms with "Toylet" devices that are played by speed and volume of urine.

The games use urinals fitted with sensors and small digital displays placed at eye level.

Five titles are available, including "Hold, Manneken Pis!", named after the iconic Brussels fountain depicting a small boy in the act. Players compete on the basis of volume.

But in "Splashing Battle!" the user takes on the previous visitor in a virtual fight based on stream strength.

In "Violent wind warning has been issued", the player tries to blow up a virtual girl's skirt with a digital wind, also dependent on the power of his flow.

Sega has so far installed about 130 Toylets at some 100 bars and restaurants across Japan for 150,000 yen ($1,900) each.

The incentive for bar owners is the ability to show digital adverts after the games, once they have gained the players' full attention.

"This gives bar customers more things to talk about when they return from bathrooms to their tables," said Hiroyuki Tanaka, Sega spokesman.

The Toylets also acted as a subliminal incentive for men to take an extra step towards the urinals -- helping to prevent missed targets and keep lavatories clean, he added.

"We have had good feedback from our customers that toilet cleanliness has improved," he said.

Megaupload founder up in N.Z. court after shutdown

WELLINGTON, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - Four suspected Internet pirates wanted in the United States appeared in a New Zealand court on Friday, as police seized a treasure trove of luxury cars, artworks and cash from the founder of popular file-sharing site Megaupload.com.

The website's 37-year-old German founder "Kim Dotcom" and three other men were denied bail by the district court in Auckland and will appear for another hearing on Monday, after raids on 10 premises across the New Zealand city.

Armed New Zealand police liaising with US authorities said they arrested Dotcom, also known as Kim Schmitz, and seized a sawn-off shotgun after he tried to hide inside his mansion behind an elaborate network of electronic defences.

The dramatic raids came after Megaupload went offline as US officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation detailed what they described as "among the largest criminal copyright cases ever brought by the United States".

Washington wants to extradite the Auckland quartet to face prosecution for online piracy, on charges of racketeering and money-laundering that could carry jail time of up to 20 years.

The Justice Department and FBI indicted a total of seven people who they said were "responsible for massive worldwide online piracy of numerous types of copyrighted works, through Megaupload.com and other related sites".

The accused generated more than $175 million in criminal proceeds and caused more than $500 million in harm to copyright owners by offering pirated copies of movies, TV programmes and other content, according to a statement.

The indicted seven, all European, include the four arrested in New Zealand. The other three remain at large.

Megaupload itself is registered in Hong Kong, but checks by AFP appeared to show only a shell company with a post office box address in the Chinese city.

In a statement, New Zealand police said they seized cars worth NZ$6.0 million ($4.8 million), including a 1959 pink Cadillac and a Rolls Royce Phantom at the "Dotcom Mansion" in Auckland along with valuable artworks.

In addition, NZ$11 million in cash held in New Zealand financial accounts was frozen pending the outcome of legal proceedings, after the suspects were alleged to have made illicit millions from subscriptions and advertising.

According to New Zealand reports, Dotcom's lawyer initially objected to media requests to take photographs and video inside the Auckland courtroom. But the accused said he did not mind "because we have nothing to hide".

The announcement of the US indictment on Thursday came one day after Wikipedia, Google and other websites staged a protest against congressional legislation intended to crack down on online piracy.

The prosecution of Megaupload sparked a retaliatory cyber attack on the FBI and Justice Department websites.

The two government sites were up and running again early Friday after being shut down for several hours in the attack claimed by the "Anonymous" hacktivist group, which also briefly disabled music and recording industry websites.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the US prosecution, saying the site's operators were reaping "criminal profits from the illegal distribution of copyrighted works".

Megaupload is popular with Hollywood celebrities and has been endorsed by music stars such as Kanye West. It was also reported Thursday that Swizz Beatz, a music producer married to the singer Alicia Keys, was its chief executive.

Beatz, whose real name is Kasseem Dean, was not named in the indictment.

Megaupload Ltd. and another company, Vestor Ltd., were indicted by a grand jury in Virginia and charged with racketeering conspiracy, copyright infringement and conspiring to commit money laundering.

Vestor's sole shareholder is Kim Dotcom, who was named as a resident of Hong Kong and New Zealand. His six fellow accused come from Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands and Slovakia.

Conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to commit money laundering each carry maximum sentences of 20 years in prison while five years in prison is the maximum punishment for the copyright infringement charges.

Malaysian prosecutors appeal Anwar sodomy acquittal

KUALA LUMPUR, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - Malaysian prosecutors on Friday filed a notice of appeal against the acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges, sending the long-running divisive case back to court.

Anwar was cleared earlier this month of charges he had sex with a young male former aide, ending a two-year trial that shook the conservative Muslim-majority country.

He had slammed the allegations as politically motivated, concocted by Prime Minister Najib Razak's government to stifle his resurgent opposition.

Anwar's lawyer Sankara Nair said he had not yet received the notice of appeal but called it "regrettable and atrocious".

"The trial judge has stated succinctly in his verdict that the crucial evidence was 'tampered'," he said in a statement.

"It appears to be a case of political persecution of Anwar and not prosecution," he added, calling the appeal a "desperate act".

Sankara said an appeals court was now expected to hear the case although no date has yet been set.

The attorney general's chambers said prosecutors had decided to file the notice of appeal based on an evaluation of the available evidence.

"The attorney general's chambers wishes to emphasise that in making any decision, the department acts solely on the evidence and in accordance with the law, not influenced by any emotion or parties," it said.

Anwar, 64, was charged in 2008, months after his opposition scored unprecedented gains in general elections against the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled the country for over five decades.

Kuala Lumpur High Court Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah cleared Anwar on January 9, saying DNA evidence submitted by the prosecution in the case was unreliable.

Sodomy is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

Anwar's accuser, Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, 26, said he was "grateful" for the appeal.

"I will continue to pray... and be patient," he said in his blog.

Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, was convicted and jailed on sodomy and corruption charges more than a decade ago after he had a fallout with his then boss, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

He was freed in 2004 when the sodomy conviction was overturned after spending six years in jail, and went on to lead a three-party opposition to the 2008 electoral gains. He has denied all charges.

Also on Friday, a Malaysian appeals court overturned the acquittal on a charge of sedition of prominent opposition lawmaker and lawyer Karpal Singh, who represented Anwar in the sodomy trial.

The high court cleared Karpal in 2010 of the sedition charge for criticising a royal state sultan, a crime punishable by up to three years in jail.

Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, a spokeswoman for local activist group Lawyers for Liberty, criticised the appeals court's ruling as "one step backward", calling the sedition act "a tool of oppression".

Prime Minister Najib has promised to grant greater civil liberties and review several other security laws criticised as oppressive in a move to claw back support from voters.

But opposition leaders and activists have questioned his sincerity, dismissing his promises as election ploys ahead of polls widely expected to be held this year.

Two Japanese detained in N. Korea return home

TOKYO, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - Two Japanese men detained in North Korea 10 months ago have returned home, a minister said Friday, adding it could be a "positive" diplomatic sign from the reclusive state.

The two arrived back in Japan this week, said Jin Matsubara, head of the National Public Safety Commission.

"I think this could be taken as a positive message from North Korea," he told reporters.

Police declined to comment on whether the two men paid any money or why they were released.

The men, reportedly in their 30s and 40s were detained in a special economic zone near the communist state's border with Russia. They returned via China.

Japan has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and relations remain strained by Japan's colonisation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910-1945 and the North's kidnapping of Japanese nationals in the Cold War era.

Kim Jong-Il, who died last month, admitted in 2002 that agents had abducted Japanese nationals but said the issue had been solved with the return of five victims along with their spouses and offspring.

The North has said others who were kidnapped had died, although Japan believes there are more abductees still alive.

Three Japanese men had initially been taken into detention in March last year, but one of them, who was in his 80s, was freed and returned to Japan in April, Jiji Press news agency and public broadcaster NHK said.

Reports said the three men were employees of a machine maintenance firm in Tokyo who had visited Rason city near North Korea's border with Russia in March to check machines at a food manufacturing factory.

They were reportedly detained on charges of hiding drugs in canned goods to be exported to China and currency counterfeiting.

Myanmar election fever grips Suu Kyi party

YANGON, January 20, 2012 (AFP) - With the fighting peacock flag flying outside, Aung San Suu Kyi's Yangon party headquarters are once again a hive of activity as her Myanmar opposition prepares for its first poll battle in two decades.

The excited crowds that gathered around the democracy icon this week as she registered her candidacy for April 1 by-elections testified to the new energy galvanising Myanmar's politics after almost half a century of military rule.

Suu Kyi, who spent much of the past two decades in detention, has already registered to run for a lower house seat in a rural constituency near Yangon -- the latest dramatic change in the country formerly known as Burma.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, the daughter of Myanmar's independence hero General Aung San, was under house arrest at the time of her party's 1990 landslide election victory, which was ignored by the ruling generals.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party boycotted a 2010 election that swept the army's allies to power, saying the rules were unfair.

But with a new-found confidence in the government, she will engage in battle herself for the first time -- a challenge she appears to address with humility.

"Am I looking forward to it? I am not sure I think of it as anything other than hard work. But I am not afraid of hard work," she said at a recent press conference.

Myanmar's regime has surprised even critics with a series of reformist moves including dialogue with the opposition, the release of hundreds of political prisoners and peace talks with armed ethnic minority rebels.

The upcoming vote is seen as a major test of the new administration's democratic ambitions after a series of conciliatory gestures by the army-backed government that replaced the long-ruling junta last year.

To those who -- in Myanmar and abroad -- have put Suu Kyi on a pedestal and believe running in this election is beneath her, she defends the will of the people.

"This is a very dangerous attitude to think that any politician is too high up to be involved in the basis of parliamentary democracy. I think we all have to start with at least a sense of humility," she said.

Suu Kyi remains hugely popular in Myanmar and there is little doubt she would be elected if the polls are free and fair.

"Of course I will vote for the NLD because we love Daw (Aunt) Suu and General Aung San," said Yangon taxi driver Khin Aye. "We believe in her. She will be the one who can work for our country and the people."

One danger raised by observers is that Suu Kyi's election could legitimise the regime in a parliament still dominated by the former generals and their allies, with a quarter of seats reserved for unelected military officials.

A total of 48 seats are up for grabs in the April vote, not enough to threaten the resounding majority held by the ruling party, but this does not seem to concern Suu Kyi, 66.

"The greatest risk is the people in our party fighting to be candidates among themselves," said the woman widely and warmly known in Myanmar as simply, "The Lady".

The NLD headquarters in central Yangon, a dusty and somewhat shabby building, teems with activists, followers and journalists, while notice boards appeal for new party members.

On the first floor Suu Kyi holds meetings with the party's central committee while on the ground floor young people prepare for the elections.

Women openly sell T-shirts, key chains and calendars bearing the image of Suu Kyi and her father, something unthinkable just a year ago.

Khin Myat Thu, 28, joined the NLD eight years ago, following in the footsteps of family members. Her grandfather fought alongside Aung San and today her own commitment as the party youth spokeswoman is evident.

"Majority or minority (in parliament) is not important. We will stand for the rule of law," she said.

"Aung San Suu Kyi will try to have some influence on the other MPs so that the democratisation process is accepted by everyone."

Suu Kyi's family home on the shore of Inya Lake in Yangon is also constantly busy with a stream of foreign dignitaries.

There is little point in removing the stage set up on her doorstep for TV cameras between such visits, while solar-powered lighting is installed in the garden along with flags bearing the NLD party's new symbols.

Progress in the NLD's political platform is matching developments on the house. The official party programme is being drafted and the first issue of a booklet informing the faithful about the campaign was released this week.

Phyu Phyu Thin, 40, is running in a Yangon constituency and hopes her experience helping the campaign for the 1990 elections will stand her in good stead.

But she warned people not to get their hopes too high. "There will be no promises. The main thing is to lead people to participate in the political process."

Microsoft posts $6.62 bn quarterly net profit

NEW YORK, January 19, 2012 (AFP) - Microsoft reported a $6.62 billion net profit on Thursday for the second quarter of its fiscal year, slightly better than the expectations of Wall Street analysts.

The US software giant said quarterly revenue rose five percent in the quarter which ended on December 31 to $20.89 billion.

The net profit of $6.62 billion was virtually unchanged from the same quarter a year ago when Microsoft posted a $6.63 billion net profit.
Earnings per share of 78 cents for the quarter were slightly better than the 76 cents forecast by analsyts.

"We saw strong demand for our business products and services, despite the soft PC market and continuing economic uncertainty in key parts of the world," Microsoft chief financial officer Peter Klein said in a statement.

"We delivered record earnings per share by continuing to manage our costs while investing for future growth."

Google shares dip as earnings fall short

NEW YORK, January 19, 2012 (AFP) - Google shares dipped sharply in after-hours trading on Thursday after the Internet search giant's quarterly earnings fell short of the expectations of Wall Street analysts.

The Mountain View, California-based company reported a fourth-quarter net profit of $2.71 billion compared to $2.54 billion in the same quarter a year ago.

Revenue rose 25 percent to $10.58 billion but was $8.13 billion when including traffic acquisition costs -- the portion of revenue shared with Google's partners -- less than the $8.4 billion expected by analysts.

Earnings per share of $9.50 were below analyst forecasts of $10.49.

Google shares were down 9.12 percent at $581.25 in after-hours trading after gaining 1.05 percent during the day on Wall Street.

Investors are used to Google matching or surpassing analyst forecasts and its shares tend to suffer when the company fails to meet the always lofty expectations.

Chief executive Larry Page said Google had a "really strong quarter ending a great year.

"Full year revenue was up 29 percent, and our quarterly revenue blew past the $10 billion mark for the first time," Page said in a statement.

"I'm very excited about what we can do in 2012 -- there are tremendous opportunities to help users and grow our business," he said.

The Google chief executive also said he was "super excited about the growth of Android, Gmail, and Google+, which now has 90 million users globally -- well over double what I announced just three months ago."

In a conference call with financial analysts, Page said user engagement with Google+, the Internet titan's Facebook rival, is "growing tremendously."

"Plus users are very engaged with our product, over 60 percent of them engage daily and over 80 percent weekly," he said.

Page, who took over as chief executive from Eric Schmidt in April of last year, said growth of the Android software platform for mobile devices was "quite simply mind-boggling."

He said 700,000 Android-powered phones are activated every day and there are 250 million Android devices in total, up 50 million since November.

Google's free email program Gmail has more than 350 million active users "and is growing rapidly," Page said.

Chief financial officer Patrick Pichette said display advertising growth remained strong and revenue was rising in every region despite the crisis in Europe.

Google said it had 32,467 full-time employees at the end of December, up from 31,353 at the end of September.

Murdoch group in mass hacking payouts to stars

LONDON, January 19, 2012 (AFP) - Rupert Murdoch's media empire on Thursday agreed huge payouts to 37 phone-hacking victims including British actor Jude Law, footballer Ashley Cole and former deputy prime minister John Prescott.

The High Court in London heard details of new settlements amounting to more than £645,000 ($996,000, 771,000 euros), including £130,000 for "Alfie" star Law, for hacking by the News of the World tabloid.

Lawyers for the victims said the deals were an admission of the scale of the practice, and accused senior newspaper staff of a cover-up -- an allegation the company denied.

In a statement issued after the hearing, Law said he had launched his case "to find out the truth" about phone-hacking, which prompted Murdoch to shut the 168-year-old News of the World weekly last July.

"For me this case was never about money. It was about standing up for myself and finding out what had happened. I owed it to my friends and family as well as myself to do this," Law said.

The 39-year-old said he had suspected friends and family when private information kept appearing in the press between 2003 and 2006.

"I changed my phones, I had my house swept for bugs but still the information kept being published. I started to become distrustful of people close to me," he added.

"No aspect of my private life was safe from intrusion."

Among the other payouts, Prescott, who was deputy prime minister under Tony Blair, received £40,000; Law's ex-wife Sadie Frost received £50,000; Law's personal assistant Ben Jackson received £40,000; and rugby player Gavin Henson, the ex-husband of singer Charlotte Church, also got £40,000.

Guy Pelly, a close friend of Prince William and Prince Harry, won £40,000, while Chelsea and England star Cole and Australian singer Dannii Minogue won undisclosed settlements.

Three of the victims' lawyers issued a joint statement claiming the cases had exposed evidence of a cover-up by executives at News Group Newspapers, the part of Murdoch's empire that published the News of the World.

"News Group has agreed to compensation being assessed on the basis that senior employees and directors of NGN knew about the wrongdoing and sought to conceal it by deliberately deceiving investigators and destroying evidence," they said.

Murdoch's company rejected this, saying: "NGN made no admission as part of these settlements that directors or senior employees knew about the wrongdoing by NGN or sought to conceal it.

"However, for the purpose of reaching these settlements only, NGN agreed that the damages to be paid to claimants should be assessed as if this was the case."

As each case was mentioned in court, Murdoch lawyer Michael Silverleaf expressed the company's "sincere apologies" for the damage and distress caused.

One of the lawyers for the victims, Mark Thomson, said they had been "extremely brave to take on and succeed against a massive and influential multinational media organisation".

He said the majority of people pursuing damages claims had now settled but that others would press ahead with a trial scheduled for next month.

Murdoch's company has set up a multi-million-pound compensation scheme for victims of phone hacking in a bid to avoid further costly civil lawsuits.

Among those it settled with last year were British actress Sienna Miller, Law's ex-girlfriend, who received £100,000, and James Hewitt, the former lover of Diana, Princess of Wales.

News Group also paid £2 million to the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, while Murdoch made a personal donation of £1 million to charities chosen by her family.

Revelations that the News of the World hacked Dowler's phone caused public outrage when they emerged in July last year, turning the long-simmering issue into a major public scandal.

It sparked a parliamentary investigation and an official inquiry into media ethics, while police continue to make arrests over the row.

Among those already arrested and bailed are Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor and Prime Minister David Cameron's former media chief, and former editor and Murdoch executive Rebekah Brooks. They both deny wrongdoing.

Apple unveils digital textbooks app for iPad

NEW YORK, January 19, 2012 (AFP) - Apple is taking aim at the textbook market.

The California-based gadget-maker unveiled a free iBooks 2 application for the iPad on Thursday that brings interactive textbooks to the popular tablet computer.

"Education is deep in Apple's DNA," said Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of marketing. "With iBooks 2 for iPad, students have a more dynamic, engaging and truly interactive way to read and learn."

He said the iPad is "rapidly being adopted by schools across the US and around the world" and 1.5 million iPads are already being used in educational institutions.

At a press conference at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Schiller and other Apple executives showed off the interactive animations, diagrams, photos and videos available in the iBooks textbooks.

Apple said the electronic textbooks feature "fast, fluid navigation, easy highlighting and note-taking, searching and definitions, plus lesson reviews and study cards."

"The iBooks 2 app will let students learn about the solar system or the physics of a skyscraper with amazing new interactive textbooks that come to life with just a tap or swipe of the finger," it said.

Apple announced partnerships with publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson to produce digital high school textbooks.

Most of the high school textbooks in Apple's iBookstore will cost $14.99 or less, Apple said, far cheaper than the current prices for print textbooks.

Apple also unveiled a free tool called iBooks Author which allows Macintosh computer users to create their own iBooks textbooks and publish them to the iBookstore.

Amazon and others have been seeking to tap into the market for digital textbooks but Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said iBooks 2 and iBooks Author will "democratize the publication and distribution of content."

"We'll see an avalanche of new companies and new content for the education market -- and many of the best innovations will come from these smaller companies, not the biggest publishers," she said.

According to Forrester, electronic textbooks currently account for only 2.8 percent of the $8 billion US textbook market.

Apple on Thursday also announced a new iTunes U application for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch that helps teachers create courses and offers free educational content for students from dozens of universities, including Cambridge, Duke, Harvard, Oxford and Stanford.

"Never before have educators been able to offer their full courses in such an innovative way," Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice president of Internet software and services, said in a statement.

"The all-new iTunes U app enables students anywhere to tap into entire courses from the world's most prestigious universities," Cue added.

Obama seeks jobs boost from Chinese, Indian tourists

ORLANDO, January 19, 2012 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama went to Disney World on Thursday touting a new jobs-from-tourism plan, but a top Republican rival mocked his trip as new evidence he lived in a political "Fantasyland."

Obama unveiled a proposal to boost jobs in the crucial electoral swing state of Florida and elsewhere by easing visa restrictions for new armies of middle class tourists from booming developing nations like China, India and Brazil.

"More money spent by more tourists means businesses can hire more workers," Obama said on a warm sunny day, speaking against the famed backdrop of Cinderella Castle in Disney's Magic Kingdom theme park.

"We've got the most entertaining destinations in the world.... This is the land of extraordinary natural wonders... this is the land where we do big things," Obama said, promising to make it easier for trusted travelers to enter the United States despite formidable border security measures.

"I want America to be the top tourist destination in the world."

Eyeing growing tourist dollars in emerging nations like China and Brazil, Obama set a target of increasing non-immigrant visa capacity in those two states by 40 percent in 2012.

Under the plan, 80 percent of such applicants could get interviews with visa officers within three weeks of submitting paperwork, and some low-risk applicants could see interview requirements waived completely.

Obama also directed his administration to expand a program that allows trusted low-risk frequent travelers who agree to undergo background checks to bypass long lines at US immigration in crowded airports.

The US tourism and travel industry represents 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and accounted for 7.5 million jobs in 2010, with visitors from overseas responsible for the creation of 1.2 million jobs.

Obama's visit to Florida came as he cranks up the pace of his 2012 reelection bid, in the knowledge that a victory in the Sunshine State in November could help send him back to the White House for four more years.

Disney World, in Orlando, sits near the I-4 coast-to-coast highway in central Florida which bisects the most contested swing-territory in the state.

Republicans will hold their presidential nominating convention in August in Tampa, at the west end of the crucial corridor.

Obama's jobs speech clearly was also targeted at disappointment with his jobs-creating record in the key state, where unemployment stands at 10 percent and will be a key issue in the presidential election.

Mitt Romney, Obama's most likely Republican opponent in November, could not resist a swipe at the president, on the Disney theme.

"Perhaps there's some poetic justice in the president speaking from Fantasyland because, I'm afraid, he's been speaking from Fantasyland for some time now," Romney said.

Romney charged Obama was "out of touch with reality" as he tried to defend his jobs record with unemployment above 8.0 percent for 35 straight months.

Experts in the travel and tourism industries say more than one million more US jobs could be created over the next decade if the government takes appropriate measures.

The number of travelers from emerging economies with growing middle classes was expected to grow by 135 percent in China, 274 percent in Brazil and 50 percent in India between 2010 and 2016, according to the White House, which said nationals from these three countries contributed approximately $15 billion and thousands of jobs to the US economy in 2010.

David Scowsill, president of the World Travel and Tourism Council, called Obama's announcement a "major step forward."

Roger Dow, president and chief executive of the US Travel Association, said Obama's "timing could not be better."

"Travel is an essential industry for our nation and a bipartisan issue that can unite our country and rally us forward," he said.

Twitter acquires news aggregator Summify

SAN FRANCISCO, January 19, 2012 (AFP) - Twitter has acquired Summify, a Vancouver-based social news aggregator.
"We're extremely excited to announce that Summify has been acquired by Twitter!" Summify announced on its website on Thursday.

Financial details of the transaction were not disclosed.

Summify provides users with a summary of news from members of their social networks and delivers it by email, through a Web browser or to a mobile device.

"Our long-term vision at Summify has always been to connect people with the most relevant news for them, in the most time efficient manner," Summify said.

"As hundreds of millions of people worldwide are signing up and consuming Twitter, we realized it's the best platform to execute our vision at a truly global scale.

"Since Twitter shared this vision with us, joining the company made perfect sense," Summify said.

Originally from Romania, Summify's founders, Mircea Pasoi and Cristian Strat, moved to Vancouver two years ago. They plan to relocate to San Francisco to work out of Twitter's headquarters.

Summify said that with the acquisition by Twitter it would stop accepting new accounts and shut down some features.