YouTube to Block Comments on Most Videos Showing Minors

YouTube said Thursday it will disable user comments on a broad array of videos featuring children to thwart “predatory behavior” after revelations about a glitch exploited for sharing of child pornography.

The Google-owned video sharing service announced further steps to crack down on inappropriate comments a week after an investigation showing how comments and connections on child porn were being displayed alongside innocuous videos.

“We recognize that comments are a core part of the YouTube experience and how you connect with and grow your audience,” YouTube said in a posted message to creators.

“At the same time, the important steps we’re sharing today are critical for keeping young people safe.”

YouTube said that during the past week it has suspended comments on tens of millions of videos to prevent users from exploiting of the software glitch for nefarious purposes.

“These efforts are focused on videos featuring young minors and we will continue to identify videos at risk over the next few months,” YouTube said.

“Over the next few months, we will be broadening this action to suspend comments on videos featuring young minors and videos featuring older minors that could be at risk of attracting predatory behavior.”

A small number of video creators will be allowed to keep comments enabled, but will be required to carefully moderate commentary and to deploy software tools provided by YouTube, according to Google.

YouTube accelerated the release of an improved “classifier” that it said will detect and remove twice the number of policy-breaking comments by individuals.

‘Wormhole’

A YouTube creator last week revealed what he called a “wormhole” that allowed comments and connections on child porn alongside videos.

Shortly thereafter, YouTube deleted many comments and blocked some accounts and channels showing inappropriate comments.

Matt Watson, a YouTube creator with some 26,000 subscribers, revealed the workings of what he termed a “wormhole” into a pedophile ring that allowed users to trade social media contacts and links to child porn in YouTube comments.

The post by Watson sparked a series of news reports and boycotts of YouTube ads from major firms.

The incident raised fears of a fresh “brand safety” crisis for YouTube, which lost advertisers last year following revelations that messages appeared on channels promoting conspiracy theories, white nationalism and other objectionable content.

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Musical Virtuoso Previn Dies at 89 

Musical virtuoso Andre Previn, who mastered almost every type of genre, died Thursday at 89. 

 

His manager gave no cause of death in making her announcement. 

 

The Berlin-born Previn was a child prodigy, but his family fled Hitler’s Germany when he was 9 years old. 

 

They eventually settled in Hollywood, where Previn launched his career orchestrating scores for films. His work can be heard gracing the soundtracks of such musicals as My Fair Lady, Porgy and Bess, and Gigi. 

 

While working in Hollywood, Previn became enamored with jazz, but may be best remembered as a classical composer and conductor, serving as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He also led the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Houston and Pittsburgh symphonies.  

 

Throughout his career, Previn won four Oscars and 10 Grammys. 

 

Previn was married five times, including to actress Mia Farrow, with whom he adopted three children.  

 

One of them, a Korean orphan named Soon-Yi, created a scandal when she married Farrow’s then-boyfriend, film director Woody Allen. 

 

Previn once said he would like to drive over Allen with a steamroller. 

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US Craft Marketplace Makes Plans to Go Green by Offsetting Emissions

Online crafts retailer Etsy Inc will go green by offsetting planet-warming carbon emissions from its shipping activities, the U.S. company said Wednesday, joining a host of companies making public moves to battle climate change.

Etsy will buy clean energy certificates supporting tree conservation in the United States, wind and solar power in India and clean automotive technology, it said.

The online marketplace for buying and selling handmade and vintage goods said its initiative is the first time a global e-commerce company has made such a move.

“Fast, free shipping ultimately comes at a cost to our planet,” wrote Josh Silverman, chief executive officer of the New York-based company in a blog on the company’s website.

The certificates are a way for companies to offset the amount of carbon dioxide they produce by paying for projects that support clean development.

The 13-year-old Etsy said its greenhouse gas emissions from shipping in 2018 totaled about 135,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, similar to those of 29,000 cars in a year.

About 55,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are released each day from the delivery of all packages ordered from online retailers in the United States alone, it said.

Budweiser, Amazon.com

Last month, at the U.S. Super Bowl championship game, giant beer maker Budweiser helped purchase clean energy certificates to offset greenhouse gas emissions linked to fans’ travel and the host city of Atlanta.

More than 100 U.S. companies have committed to setting emission-reduction targets that seek to limit rising temperature to 2 degrees Celsius as part of a United Nations-backed initiative, said Sabrina Helm, who heads the Consumers, Environment & Sustainability Initiative, a research group at the University of Arizona.

Online retailers have largely been absent from those efforts, and Etsy’s move sends a “very important signal,” she said.

“A lot of online retailers are not particularly transparent in what they do in terms of sustainability,” she told Reuters.

Last week, online retail giant Amazon.com Inc said it planned to make its carbon footprint public for the first time this year.

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Lady Gaga: Bradley Cooper Duet Was Acting, Not Love

It was acting, not love, when Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sang a duet Sunday at the 91st Academy Awards.

 

Gaga discussed the emotional performance of “Shallow” from their film “A Star Is Born” during an appearance Wednesday on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live .” The duet led online posters to say the stars are in love.

 

The artist rolled her eyes and called social media “the toilet of the internet,” saying it has hurt pop culture.

 

Gaga said, “Yes, people saw love and guess what, that’s what we wanted you to see.”

 

Gaga says it was a love song in a love story and they had “worked all week on that performance.”

 

She said, “I guess we did a good job. Fooled ya!”

 

Gaga brought her Oscar for “Shallow” to the show.

 

 

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Swiss Study Shows Language Learning During Sleep

A new study suggests you can learn language while you sleep.

Researchers from Switzerland’s University of Bern say they discovered people were able to learn new language words during deep levels of sleep. Results of the study that recently appeared in the publication Current Biology and other studies suggest the same findings.

The research group was led by Katharina Henke, a professor at the University of Bern and founder of the school’s Center for Cognition, Learning and Memory. The group carried out experiments on a group of young German-speaking men and women.

During normal sleep, human brain cells are alternately active and inactive. The Swiss experiments centered on periods of slow-wave peaks or deep sleep called “up-states,” which the researchers say are the best moments for sleep learning.  

Researchers observed individuals in a controlled environment and recorded brain activity as pairs of words were played for the study subjects. One word in the pair was a real German word. The other was a made-up foreign word.

Each word pair was played four times with the order changed each time. The goal was to create a lasting memory link between the false word and the German word that individuals could identify when awake.  

When the subject woke, they were presented with the false language words – both by sight and sound. They were tested on the false words played during sleep.             

During this part of the experiment, some subjects had their brain activity recorded by magnetic imaging technology to measure brain activity when subjects were answering questions.

Results of the study found that a majority of subjects gave more correct answers about the sleep-learned words than would be expected if they had only guessed. Researchers said memory was best for word pairs presented during slow-wave peaks during sleep.

The researchers say more study is needed to support their findings. However, the experiments provide new evidence that memories can be formed and vocabulary learning can take place in both conscious and unconscious states.

 

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Thai Lawmakers Approve Controversial Cybersecurity Act

Thailand’s legislature has passed a cybersecurity bill that would allow authorities access to people’s personal information without a court order.

The Cybersecurity Act addresses computer hacking crimes, but activists fear it will allow the government sweeping access to people’s personal information.

The National Legislative Assembly, which passed the bill in its final reading Thursday by a vote of 133-0, was appointed by the junta that came to power after a 2014 coup. It becomes law when published in the Royal Gazette.

The cybersecurity bill allows state officials to seize, search, infiltrate, and make copies of computers, computer systems and information in computers without a court warrant if an appointed committee sees it as a high-level security threat, and relevant courts can later be informed of such actions.

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Ice Castles Turn US Farmland Into Winter Wonderland

On a clear, frigid night in a courtyard made of walls of ice, Bruce McCafferty and his young son stand mesmerized, bathed in the pulsating rainbow light emanating from a series of stout ice formations.

McCafferty and his son Dougie have come out to Ice Castles in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, a collection of ice tunnels, caverns and a 97-foot (30-meter) ice slide that cover an acre (half a hectare) of farmland that some have said are like something out of the movie “Frozen.”

The winter wonderland, one of six in North America, is built from scratch when the cold conditions allow the ice to sprout from the barren ground.

Other parks are located in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Excelsior, Minnesota; Dillon, Colorado; Midway, Utah; and Edmonton, Alberta. This year, the attractions will stand until early March in most locations.

At the center of the New Hampshire attraction stand six ice structures that are nearly four feet tall (more than a meter tall) and are lit from within by colored lights.

“It’s quite magical isn’t it?” McCafferty said. “It’s an amazing creation. I’d really like to know how they actually built it.”

The attraction starts small in December, when the site’s lead builder Matt Pasciuto and his team set up icicle farms: metal racks that are sprayed with water to allow icicles to grow on them overnight. The icicles are then harvested by “ice artists,” who place them around more than 70 sprinklers.

“Once we turn the sprinklers on, the water starts freezing to those icicles, making them grow together, bigger and bigger and thicker and thicker,” Pasciuto said. “We grow the castle about two to three feet [a half-meter to one meter] at a time.”

Within a few weeks, the icicles have managed to cover the entire park, and some reach heights of 20 feet (six meters).

On a recent sunny day, the massive ice walls shined with a glacial blue hue. After the sun went down, the castles seemed to burst with colors thanks to LED lights embedded in the ice. The astonishing visuals are complemented by a synchronized fantasy soundtrack playing throughout the venue.

The attraction, which moved to this year from neighboring Lincoln, draws tens of thousands of visitors each season.

“When the movie `Frozen’ came out, that was a huge boost because now everyone says, ‘Oh, we get to see an actual ice castle,'” Pasciuto said.

Three years ago, Adam Schellinger started bringing his girlfriend on annual dates to the Ice Castles in New Hampshire, a three-hour drive from their hometown of Brooklyn, Connecticut. On last year’s visit, Schellinger got down on one knee and popped the question. The crowd immediately began cheering. The couple was married in September.

“When I proposed, it was blue, and then it went to purple,” recalled Schellinger, who returned for a visit with his wife Ashley a couple weeks ago. “It was just awesome — a great backdrop for sure.”

After a mild start to the winter, the weather in New Hampshire this year has mostly cooperated with only a few days with above-freezing temperatures. But that isn’t always the case, according to Melissa Smuzynski, public relations director for Ice Castles. She said some locations occasionally have had to cut their seasons short due to warmer winters but that “we haven’t noticed a long-term pattern over the years of our seasons becoming shorter.”

But Pascuito says he dreads the warmer days.

“The last couple of years we’ve had some really bad warm spells in February where it gets to 60 degrees [Fahrenheit, 15 degrees Celsius]. This is New Hampshire — that shouldn’t happen,” he said. “We love the cold. We want a nice long winter.”

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Popular Fur-Trimmed Parkas a Boon for Trappers, Not for Coyotes

Those fur-trimmed parkas so common on city sidewalks have become a boon to backwoods trappers.

Coyote fur pelts are in big demand to provide the lush, silvery or tawny-tinged arcs of fur on the hoods on Canada Goose coats and their many global imitators. A good western coyote, prized for its silky, light-colored fur, can fetch more than $100. The top price at a recent Colorado auction hit $170, a 40 percent increase from four years ago.

“Coyotes are hot,” said John Hughes, a longtime buyer at J and M Furs in Roundup, Montana, “and it’s all due to the trim trade.”

Fur market

Late fall and early winter are the prime trapping time, when coyote coats are at their fullest, but a lot of the selling happens in late winter. Fur is sold at big auction houses in Canada, by individual fur buyers across North America and at local auctions near where the animals roam. At one such auction in a VFW hall in the upstate New York town of Herkimer, tables were piled high with the furs of hundreds of muskrats, beavers, fishers, mink, red fox, gray fox, otters, bobcats and coyotes.

“They like the white-belly coyotes, something like this, the whiter belly,” said John Rutherford, a trapper and hunter, showing a lush, long-haired coyotes.

Fur experts say the uptick in coyote demand began with Canada Goose parkas, with their distinctive Arctic Circle patch, a brand that went big in 2013 when model Kate Upton famously wore one over her bikini on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit Issue. Over the years, more celebrities and their fashion-conscious followers began donning the parkas, which now can retail for more than $1,000 each.

“Canada Goose is always the name that people relate to, but there are so many other brands that make similar coats,” said Mark Downey, CEO of Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. of North Bay, Ontario. “Basically, it’s just a coyote trim ruff that goes around the hood of all those kinds of coats.”

Downey suspects the bull market for coyote will continue. North American Fur Auctions was similarly optimistic in a November web posting, saying the trim business continues to be in full fashion with Canada Goose being the major taker.

Toronto-based Canada Goose did not respond to requests for comment.

Trappers face competition

The hot market for coyotes comes as trappers deal with recent economic slumps in China and Russia, competition from ranched fur and the intense ire of animal welfare activists, who consider the popular steel leg-hold traps particularly cruel.

Coyote trappers see themselves as sportsmen helping control populations of a ubiquitous animal often considered a nuisance. Coyotes have been spotted from the streets of Los Angeles to Manhattan’s Central Park. Farmers view them as chicken poachers, and suburban residents see them as threats to their pets.

To trappers, coyotes are one of the few money-making animals, along with bobcats and a few others.

“It is the one bright spot in most of the country,” said Dave Linkhart, of the National Trappers Association.

Hughes will pay trappers an average of $75 to $105 and as much as $120 for a western coyote. He sells to operations that create trim strips, which sells to garment makers.

“The coyotes that we have here in Montana are probably the best coyotes in the world for trim,” Hughes said. “They’re heavy, so the hair stands up for the trim, and they’re pale.”

Western coyotes scarce

He handles an average of 10,000 coyotes annually, though the numbers are down for western coyotes this year. Some blame early-season snow in Canada and the western United States, which made it harder for trappers to get out. Others believe there are simply fewer western coyotes this winter.

Either way, Downey said, “there’s not enough western coyotes to go around,” increasing demand on eastern coyotes, which tend to have coarser fur.

At the Herkimer auction, eastern coyotes tended to sell for $19 to $46. Rutherford made more than $200 for seven coyote furs.

“Coyotes are going to move,” he said. “Good-quality coyotes are going to sell. “

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US-China Trade Talks ‘Not Close’

The top U.S. trade official said Wednesday that a new trade agreement with China is not yet close to being completed. State Department correspondent Nike Ching reports from Washington on the latest in the talks and how U.S. concerns over high-tech issues remain a key point of friction. VOA Mandarin reporter Yihua Lee contributes.

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How ‘Completely Avoidable’ Measles Cases Continue to Climb

The U.S. has counted more measles cases in the first two months of this year than in all of 2017, and part of the rising threat is misinformation that makes some parents balk at a crucial vaccine, federal health officials told Congress Wednesday.

Yet the vaccine is hugely effective and very safe — so the rise of measles cases “is really unacceptable,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health.

The disease was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, which means it was not being spread domestically. But cases have been rising in recent years, and 2019 is shaping up to be a bad one.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing bemoaned what’s called “vaccine hesitancy,” meaning when people refuse or delay vaccinations.

“These outbreaks are tragic since they’re completely avoidable,” said Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky.

“This is a public health problem for which science has already provided a solution,” agreed Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

WATCH: Measles on the Rise Around the World

 

Here are some questions and answers about measles:

Q: How dangerous is measles?

A: Measles typically begins with a high fever, and several days later a characteristic rash appears on the face and then spreads over the body. Among serious complications, 1 in 20 patients get pneumonia, and 1 in 1,000 get brain swelling that can lead to seizures, deafness or intellectual disability.

While it’s rare in the U.S., 1 or 2 of every 1,000 children who get measles dies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Q: How does it spread?

A: By coughing or sneezing, and someone can spread the virus for four days before the telltale rash appears, Fauci warned.

The virus can live for up to two hours in the air or on nearby surfaces. Nine of 10 unvaccinated people who come into contact with someone with measles will catch it. Fauci called it “one of the most contagious viruses known to man.”

Q: How widespread is measles?

A: In the U.S., the CDC has confirmed 159 cases so far this year in 10 states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. That compares to 372 cases last year, and 120 in 2017.

But measles is far more common around the world. The World Health Organization said measles claimed 110,000 lives in 2017. The WHO says there’s been a 30 percent increase in measles cases in recent years. Unvaccinated Americans traveling abroad, or foreign visitors here, can easily bring in the virus.

For example, a huge outbreak in Madagascar has caused more than 68,000 illnesses and 900 deaths since September. But you don’t need to go as far as Madagascar, common tourist destinations like England, France, Italy and Greece had measles outbreaks last year, noted CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier. Nearly 83,000 people contracted measles in Europe in 2018, the highest number in a decade.

Q: How many U.S. children are vulnerable?

A: Overall about 92 percent of U.S. children have gotten the combination vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella, known as the MMR vaccine. Two shots are required, one around the first birthday and a second between age 4 and 6. Full vaccination is 97 percent effective at preventing measles.

But the CDC says 1 child in 12 doesn’t receive the first dose on time, and in some places vaccination rates are far lower than the national average. For example, an outbreak in Washington state is linked to a community where only about 80 percent of children were properly vaccinated.

Q: Is the vaccine safe?

A: Yes, said Fauci and Messonnier, who point to decades of use by millions of children each year — and who made sure their own children were vaccinated.

In the late 1990s, one study linked MMR vaccine to autism but that study was found to be a fraud, and Fauci said later research found no risk of autism from the vaccine.

Still, misinformation about MMR safety is widespread. Fauci said the solution isn’t to criticize people who have no way to know what’s false. Instead, “we need to education them to show them what the evidence is.”

Q: Why isn’t everyone vaccinated?

A: Some people can’t be immunized for medical reasons, including infants and people with weak immune systems, and most states allow religious exemptions. But while vaccination against a list of contagious diseases is required to attend school, 17 states allow some type of non-medical exemption for “personal, moral or other beliefs,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Washington state, lawmakers are debating ending that personal or philosophical exemption, as are several other states. California ended a similar exemption in 2015 after a measles outbreak at Disneyland sickened 147 people and spread across the U.S. and into Canada.

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Congo Ebola Center Set on Fire After Armed Attack

Armed assailants attacked an Ebola treatment center in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday, setting off a fire and becoming embroiled in an extended gun battle with security forces, health officials said.

The identity and motive of the assailants were unclear. Aid workers have faced mistrust in some areas as they work to contain an Ebola outbreak.

Dozens of armed militia also regularly attack civilians and security forces in eastern Congo’s borderlands with Uganda and Rwanda, which has significantly hampered the response to the disease.

The health ministry said in a statement that 38 suspected Ebola patients and 12 confirmed cases were in the center at the time of the attack. Four of the patients with confirmed cases fled and are being looked for, it said.

None of the patients who have been accounted for were injured, nor were any staff members, the ministry added. 

French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs the center together with the ministry, condemned the “deplorable attack” and said its efforts were focused on the immediate safety of patients and staff.

The attack in the city of Butembo was the second in Congo’s Ebola-hit east this week. On Sunday unidentified assailants set fire to a treatment center in the nearby town of Katwa, killing a nurse.  

The current Ebola outbreak, first declared last August, is the second deadliest of the hemorrhagic fever since it was discovered in Congo in 1976. It is believed to have killed at least 553 people so far and infected over 300 more.

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Walmart Is Eliminating Greeters, Worrying Disabled Workers

As Walmart moves to phase out its familiar blue-vested “greeters” at 1,000 stores nationwide, disabled workers who fill many of those jobs say they’re being ill-treated by a chain that styles itself as community-minded and inclusive. 

 

Walmart told greeters around the country last week that their positions would be eliminated on April 26 in favor of an expanded, more physically demanding “customer host” role. To qualify, they will need to be able to lift 25-pound (11-kilogram) packages, climb ladders and stand for long periods. 

 

That came as a heavy blow to greeters with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other physical disabilities. For them, a job at Walmart has provided needed income, served as a source of pride and offered a connection to the community.  

Customer backlash

 

Now Walmart, America’s largest private employer, is facing a backlash as customers rally around some of the chain’s most highly visible employees. 

 

Walmart says it is striving to place greeters in other jobs at the company, but workers with disabilities are worried.  

 

Donny Fagnano, 56, who has worked at Walmart for more than 21 years, said he cried when a manager at the store in Lewisburg, Pa., called him into the office last week and told him his job was going away.  

 

“I like working,” he said. “It’s better than sitting at home.” 

 

Fagnano, who has spina bifida, said he was offered a severance package. He hopes to stay on at Walmart and clean bathrooms instead. 

 

Walmart greeters have been around for decades, allowing the retail giant to put a friendly face at the front of its stores. Then, in 2016, Walmart began replacing greeters with hosts, adding responsibilities that include helping with returns, checking receipts to deter shoplifters and keeping the front of the store clean. Walmart and other chains have been redefining roles at stores as they compete with Amazon.  

The effect of the greeter phase-out on disabled and elderly employees — who have traditionally gravitated toward the role as one they were well-suited to doing — largely escaped public notice until last week, when Walmart launched a second round of cuts. 

 

As word spread, first on social media and then in local and national news outlets, outraged customers began calling Walmart to complain. Tens of thousands of people signed petitions. Facebook groups sprang up with names like “Team Adam” and “Save Lesley.” A second-grade class in California wrote letters to Walmart’s CEO on behalf of Adam Catlin, a disabled greeter in Pennsylvania whose mother had written an impassioned Facebook post about his plight. Walmart said it has offered another job to Catlin. 

 

In Galena, Ill., hundreds of customers plan to attend an “appreciation parade” for Ashley Powell on her last day of work as a greeter. 

 

“I love it, and I think I’ve touched a lot of people,” said Powell, 34, who has an intellectual disability. 

‘What am I going to do?’

 

In Vancouver, Wash., John Combs, 42, who has cerebral palsy, was devastated and then angered by his impending job loss. It had taken his family five years to find him a job he could do, and he loved the work, coming up with nicknames for all his co-workers. 

“What am I going to do — just sit here on my butt all day in this house? That’s all I’m going to do?” Combs asked his sister and guardian, Rachel Wasser. “I do my job. I didn’t do anything wrong.” 

 

Wasser urged the retailer to “give these people a fair shake. … If you want to make your actions match your words, do it. Don’t be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 

 

With the U.S. unemployment rate for disabled people more than twice that for workers without disabilities, Walmart has long been seen as a destination for people like Combs. Advocacy groups worry the company is backsliding.  

“It’s the messaging that concerns me,” said Gabrielle Sedor, chief operations officer at ANCOR, a trade group representing service providers. “Given that Walmart is such an international leader in the retail space, I’m concerned this decision might suggest to some people that the bottom line of the company is more important to the company than inclusive communities. We don’t think those two are mutually exclusive.” 

 

The greeter issue has already prompted at least three complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as a federal lawsuit in Utah alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the federal law, employers must provide “reasonable” accommodations to workers with disabilities. 

 

Walmart did not disclose how many disabled greeters could lose their jobs. The company said that after it made the change at more than 1,000 stores in 2016, 80 percent to 85 percent of all affected greeters found other roles at Walmart. It did not reveal how many of them were disabled. 

 

This time, Walmart initially told greeters they would have 60 days to land other jobs at the company. Amid the uproar, the company has extended the deadline indefinitely for greeters with disabilities. 

 

“We recognize that our associates with physical disabilities face a unique situation,” Walmart spokesman Justin Rushing said in a statement. The extra time, he said, will give Walmart a chance to explore how to accommodate such employees. 

Offers made

 

Walmart said it has already made offers to some greeters, including those with physical disabilities, and expects to continue doing so in the coming weeks.  

 

But some workers say they have been tacitly discouraged from applying for other jobs. 

 

Mitchell Hartzell, 31, a full-time Walmart greeter in Hazel Green, Ala., said his manager told him “they pretty much didn’t have anything in that store for me to do” after his job winds down in April. He said he persisted, approaching several assistant managers to ask about openings, and found out about a vacant position at self-checkout. But it had already been promised to a greeter who doesn’t use a wheelchair, he said. 

 

“It seems like they don’t want us anymore,” said Hartzell, who has cerebral palsy. 

 

Jay Melton, 40, who has worked as a greeter in Marion, N.C., for nearly 17 years, loves church, Tar Heels basketball and Walmart. His sister-in-law, Jamie Melton, said the job is what gets him out of bed. 

 

“He doesn’t have a lot of things he does himself that bring him joy,” she said. Addressing Walmart, Melton added: “When you cut a huge population of people out, and you have written a policy that declares they are no longer capable of doing what they have been doing, that is discrimination.”  

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World Bank: Women Have Just 75 Percent of Men’s Legal Rights

Women around the world are granted only three-quarters of the legal rights enjoyed by men, often preventing them from getting jobs or opening businesses, the World Bank said in study published Wednesday. 

 

“If women have equal opportunities to reach their full potential, the world would not only be fairer, it would be more prosperous as well,” Kristalina Georgieva, the bank’s interim president, said in a statement. 

 

While reforms in many countries are a step in the right direction, “2.7 billion women are still legally barred from having the same choice of jobs as men,” the statement said. 

 

The study included an index measuring gender disparities that was derived from data collected over a decade from 187 countries and using eight indicators to evaluate the balance of rights afforded to men and women. 

 

The report showed progress over the past 10 years, with the index rising to 75 from 70, out of a possible 100, as 131 countries have agreed to enact 274 reforms, adopting laws or regulations allowing greater inclusion of women. 

 

Among the improvements, 35 countries have proposed laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, granting protections to an additional 2 billion women, while 22 nations have abolished restrictions that kept women out of certain industrial sectors. 

 

Six perfect scores

Six nations — Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden — scored a 100, “meaning they give women and men equal legal rights in the measured areas,” the World Bank said. 

 

A decade ago, no economy had achieved a perfect score. 

 

On the other hand, too many women still face discriminatory laws or regulations at every stage of their professional lives: 56 nations made no improvement over the last decade. 

 

South Asia saw the greatest progress, although it still achieved a relatively low score of 58.36. It was followed by Southeast Asia and the Pacific, at 70.73 and 64.80, respectively.  

 

Latin America and the Caribbean recorded the second-highest scores among emerging and developing economies at 79.09. 

 

Conversely, the Middle East and North Africa posted the lowest score for gender equality at 47.37. The World Bank nevertheless pointed to encouraging changes, such as the introduction of laws against domestic violence, in particular in Algeria and Lebanon.

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On World Polar Bear Day Climatologists Sound the Alarm

Wednesday marked World Polar Bear Day – an annual opportunity for conservationists to shed light on the status of the largest and most carnivorous member of the bear family. As VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports, climate change is threatening polar bear habitat and the very future of the species in the wild.

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TikTok Fined in US for Illegally Gathering Children’s Data 

The fast-growing, Chinese-owned video sharing network TikTok agreed to pay a $5.7 million fine to U.S. authorities to settle charges that it illegally collected personal information from children, officials said Wednesday. 

 

The Federal Trade Commission said the penalty for the social network, which had been known as Musical.ly, was the largest ever in a children’s privacy investigation. 

 

The social network, which has been surging in popularity with young smartphone users and taking over from rivals like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, failed to obtain parental consent from its underage users as required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, FTC officials said. 

 

The operators of TikTok “knew many children were using the app, but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons.  

No tolerance for lawbreakers

 

“This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law.” 

 

TikTok claimed 500 million users worldwide last year, making it one of the most popular worldwide apps. 

 

Owned by China’s ByteDance, it expanded its reach in the U.S. with the merger with Musical.ly. 

 

Teens have been flocking to the service, which allows them to create and share videos of 15 seconds.  

According to the FTC, the company required users to provide an email address, phone number, username, first and last name, a short biography, and a profile picture. 

 

The consumer protection regulator said 65 million accounts have been registered in the United States. 

 

Officials said the company knew that many of its users were under 13 and should have taken greater precautions. 

 

“In our view, these practices reflected the company’s willingness to pursue growth even at the expense of endangering children,” said a statement from FTC Commissioners Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter. 

 

“The agency secured a record-setting civil penalty and deletion of ill-gotten data, as well as other remedies to stop this egregious conduct.” 

Suggestive content

 

TikTok has faced criticism around the world for featuring sexually suggestive content inappropriate for children. 

 

TikTok said in a statement it would create a “separate app experience” for younger users with additional privacy protections as part of its agreement with regulators. 

 

“It’s our priority to create a safe and welcoming experience for all of our users, and as we developed the global TikTok platform, we’ve been committed to creating measures to further protect our user community — including tools for parents to protect their teens and for users to enable additional privacy settings,” the statement said.

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Fed to Stop Shrinking Portfolio This Year, Powell Says 

The Federal Reserve will stop shrinking its $4 trillion balance sheet later this year, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said on Wednesday, ending a process that investors say works at cross-purposes with the Fed’s current pause on interest rate hikes. 

“We’ve worked out, I think, the framework of a plan that we hope to be able to announce soon that will light the way all the way to the end of balance sheet normalization,” Powell told members of the House Financial Services Committee in what were his most detailed remarks to date on the subject. 

“We’re going to be in a position … to stop runoff later this year,” he said, adding that doing so would leave the balance sheet at about 16 percent or 17 percent of GDP, up from about 6 percent before the financial crisis about a decade ago. 

The U.S. gross domestic product is currently about $20 trillion, suggesting the Fed’s balance sheet would be between $3.2 trillion and $3.4 trillion. 

The Fed has been trimming its balance sheet — bulked up by trillions of dollars of bond-buying during the post-crisis years to help keep interest rates low and bolster the economy — by as much as $50 billion a month since October 2017. As recently as a few months ago it had expected to keep shrinking its portfolio for another couple of years. 

New tack

But in a series of meetings that began in November, the Fed has been devising a new approach. With rising demand for currency around the world, and from U.S. banks for reserves held at the central bank, Fed policymakers now believe a big balance sheet is necessary just to ensure it has proper control over the short-term interest rates it sets to manage the economy. 

In addition, Fed policymakers now say balance sheet policy should take financial and economic conditions into account. 

Questions about the plan remain, including whether the Fed will adjust the maturities of its Treasury portfolio, and how it will go about shedding the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) it accumulated during its asset-buying days. 

Powell said the Fed still has a bunch of decisions ahead of it. 

“The one on MBS sales is really closer to the back of the line — really, we have to decide about the maturity composition, things like that, and we’ll be working through that in a very careful way,” Powell said.  “Markets are sensitive to this.” 

Powell’s remarks on the balance sheet came toward the end of more than two hours of testimony before the Democrat-led House panel that includes several new members, including New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

But the Green New Deal advocate and Bronx populist asked no questions during the debate, and much of what Powell said on Wednesday repeated comments made Tuesday to the Republican-controlled Senate Banking Committee, including that the economy is on solid ground and the Fed would be patient on raising rates. 

Inflation goal unchanged

Powell was asked, as he was in the Senate, about the Fed’s plan to rethink its policy framework this year. He assured lawmakers that the Fed is merely trying to refine its approach so it can meet its current 2 percent inflation goal. 

“We are not looking at a higher inflation target, full stop,” he said. 

Powell also repeated his warnings against a failure by Congress to raise the debt ceiling, saying there would be “bad consequences” should the United States default on its debt payments. 

Powell by law appears two times a year before Congress to brief members of the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee on monetary policy and the state of the economy. 

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