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The Facebook hearings demonstrate the need for technology policy experts in Congress

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This week’s Facebook hearings made clear both how powerful new technologies are, and how important it is to have a common understanding of their basic mechanics.

All in all, nearly 100 members of Congress questioned Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg over the course of two days about the company he began in his college dorm room in 2004. They asked about data storage and privacy, and inquired about algorithms, encryption, and broadband. They sought assurances about the scope of targeted advertising and information about how artificial intelligence may be used to assess what is available about all of us online. It was also clear that as technology becomes ingrained in our everyday lives — from the social media platforms we use to the online services we enjoy to the smart home devices we install in our living rooms — we may not always know just how it all works.

So, while Congress considers future steps to take on issues this technical, it might also consider bringing back a tool from recent history: The Office of Technology Assessment.

As technology becomes ingrained in our everyday lives, we may not always know just how it all works.

The Office of Technology Assessment was a nonpartisan office established in 1972 but closed in 1995, when it was de-funded by the newly-Republican controlled House just as the internet era was getting underway. In its 23 years, it served as the in-house expert for Congress and its committees on technical and scientific matters. Governed by a twelve-member board, with six members from each party, the office provided members of Congress with cutting-edge policy advice on the role of new technology in communications, agriculture, transportation, defense, medicine and other sectors of the economy.

Over the course of its tenure, the office produced nearly 750 studies including assessments of everything from acid rain to applied genetics and insights on topics ranging from polygraphs to nuclear policy. It even published a landmark study on “Information Technology and its Impact on American Education,” foreseeing early the role that computers would come to play in our nation’s classrooms.

The work of the office was studiously balanced; its reports featured the pros and cons of major policy choices and both sides were in the habit of citing its work. As former Congressman Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., described it, “The creed of the Office of Technology Assessment was to come as close as possible to objective analysis.”

The digital age is so complex that old laws do not neatly capture how we interact with new technologies, and understandable facts about how the online world works are in short supply.

As a result, it became a trusted authority for technical issues and in the process helped Congress pass major legislation like the Energy Security Act and Superfund laws.

The influence of this office even extended beyond our borders: By one count, representatives from one-third of the world’s nations visited the office to learn how it worked. Comparable offices were discussed or established in countries as diverse as Austria, France, Japan, and Mexico. Clearly, it was apparent around the world that providing lawmakers with technology expertise could facilitate the passage of laws more mindful of how the future might unfold.

Nonetheless, funding was withdrawn as part of the broader Contract with America reforms put in place when control of the House of Representatives changed in 1995.

It’s especially difficult for legislators and regulators to develop this baseline of understanding when innovation can invert much of what we think we know so quickly.

If the work of the OTA was useful and important more than two decades ago, it is doubly so now. As this week’s hearings demonstrated, the digital age is so complex that old laws do not neatly capture how we interact with new technologies, and understandable facts about how the online world works are in short supply. Those facts, however, they are essential for informed lawmaking, especially as new technologies — like virtual reality, 5G wireless services, and autonomous vehicles — are being developed and deployed right now.

It’s especially difficult for legislators and regulators to develop this baseline of understanding when innovation can invert much of what we think we know so quickly.

Developing this understanding is not easy, but it is necessary for good legislation. It is time to increase the odds of successful policymaking in the future by borrowing a template from the past — and bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment.

Jessica Rosenworcel is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

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Fossil fuel firms sue governments across the world for £13bn as climate policies threaten profits | Climate News

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Fossil fuel companies are suing governments across the world for more than $18bn (£13bn) after action against climate change has threatened their profits, according to research conducted by campaign group Global Justice Now and provided exclusively to Sky News.

Five energy companies, including British companies Rockhopper and Ascent, are using a legal process that allows commercial entities to sue governments under international laws governing trade agreements and treaties.

These corporate arbitration courts operate outside of a country’s domestic legal system.

According to Global Justice Now, which has collated publicly available information, five of the largest lawsuits under way are being brought by TC Energy, RWE, Uniper, Rockhopper and Ascent Resources.

TC Energy. Pic: TC Energy
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Canada based TC Energy, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, is suing the US government for $15bn. Pic: TC Energy

The $18bn they are collectively suing for is almost a quarter of the entire climate funding provided by developed nations for developing ones, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development’s (OECD) most recent assessment.

Rockhopper is currently suing the Italian government for $325m (£234.8m) in a dispute related to a ban on offshore oil drilling close to the coastline.

Ascent is asking for $118m (£163.3m) from Slovenia after it passed legislation requiring environmental assessments for fracking.

Canada based TC Energy, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, is suing the US government for $15bn (£10.9bn) after the Biden administration cancelled the project, citing the fight against climate change.

Meanwhile German companies RWE and Uniper are suing the Dutch government for $1.6bn (£1.16bn) and $1.06bn (£768m) each following the Dutch government’s move to phase out coal and shut down coal-fired power plants by 2030.

Uniper logo
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Uniper are suing the Dutch government after its move to phase out coal and shut down coal-fired power plants by 2030

The majority of the cases are being brought under the Energy Charter Treaty, and are being hosted within the International Centre for The Settlement of Investment Disputes, a branch of the World Bank.

The Energy Charter Treaty was created after the end of the Cold War and was designed to provide a stable, transparent legal framework that protected foreign investors as energy markets opened up.

Global Justice Now trade campaigner Jean Blaylock told Sky News: “Fossil fuel companies should be paying to fix the climate crisis they caused, but instead they want a payout.

“They’re suing governments who take climate action through secretive corporate courts, massively increasing the cost of climate action”.

She added: “These courts are built into trade deals and operate outside of and supersede domestic courts and legal systems. That means a country that passes meaningful legislation to phase out fossil fuels could face a multi-billion dollar fine, despite acting entirely legally. It’s utterly undemocratic.

“These cases are only becoming more common as governments commit to climate action. World leaders may finally be waking up to the threat of the climate and ecological crisis, but fossil fuel companies are holding them to ransom, demanding ever-greater pay-outs through corporate courts.

“When world leaders gather in Glasgow, they’ll make lofty promises on climate action, but it will all be for nought if fossil fuel companies can sue governments into a state of climate paralysis. It could make a mockery of pledges at COP26.”

Global Justice Now campaigners say that the UK is a hub for the international arbitration system and that all, but two of the top 30 law firms, involved in the lucrative industry have offices in London.

Protestors are planning to gather outside these law and energy firms on Friday.

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Climate debate: End oil & gas exploration by 2050?

A spokesperson for Rockhopper told Sky News: “The Energy Charter Treaty is designed to provide a stable platform for energy sector investments. The Italian government issued licences and encouraged significant investment in oil and gas exploration, based on this platform.

“Clearly it is not equitable to change the rules halfway through. It is also important to note that those rule changes made by the Italian government were not related to climate change and that Italy continues to produce significant quantities of oil and gas within 12 miles of the coast.”

A spokesperson for German company RWE said: “RWE is not suing the Dutch government for deciding to phase out coal. We expressly support the energy transition in the Netherlands and associated measures to reduce carbon emissions.

“[But] the Dutch law does not provide for the resulting disruption to the property of affected companies. We do not consider this right.”

“RWE has therefore filed a request for arbitration against the Netherlands at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes [ICSID] in Washington under the Energy Charter Treaty.”

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A spokesperson for Ascent Resources told Sky News: “Slovenia’s Ministry of Health, Ministry of Infrastructure, the Institute of the Republic of Slovenia for Nature Conservation, the Forestry Institute of the Republic of Slovenia, the Chemical Office of the Republic of Slovenia and the Conservation Institute of the Republic of Slovenia all concluded that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was not required.

“The ARSO [Slovenian Environment Agency] decision was therefore not based on the recommendations of Slovenia’s own experts and, furthermore, it contradicted the opinions they gave.

“It is therefore manifestly arbitrary and unreasonable.”

A spokesperson for Uniper said: “The Dutch government has announced its intention to shut down the last coal-fired power plants by 2030 without compensation.

“Uniper is convinced that shutting down our power plant in Maasvlakte after only 15 years of operation would be unlawful without adequate compensation.

“International law provides a different standard of investment protection open to investors from other countries in international courts. The international tribunal is appointed by both parties, i.e. the Dutch state and Uniper.

“We are convinced that such an international tribunal will also form an objective opinion.”

TC Energy said that it was unable to comment further on a legal matter.

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German election: ‘Boring’ Olaf Scholz may be just the ticket amid uncertainty about life after ‘Mummy’ Merkel | World News

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Germany is about to lose its political mother and an air of uncertainty clouds the current election to replace her.

They call Angela Merkel “Mutti”, or Mummy, because of her calm reassuring style of rule in crisis after crisis.

For young Germans, she is the only leader they have ever known.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a news conference, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany March 19, 2021. Michael Sohn/Pool via REUTERS
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Germans call Angela Merkel ‘Mutti’ or Mummy because of her reassuring leadership style

We joined a posse of young leafleteers from Ms Merkel’s rivals’ party, the Social Democratic Party.

Emma Otto, freshly back from au pairing in Dulwich, told us losing Mutti will be weird.

“She’s been the only chancellor I’ve known,” she said. “I can’t remember a time before her so I think it’s going to be a really big change.”

They are missing her already.

We spoke to volunteers heading to help victims of July’s devastating floods.

A huge voluntary effort has sprung up in the absence of official help.

Chairwoman of Buendnis 90/Die Gruenen Annalena Baerbock, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Armin Laschet and German Finance Minister and Social Democratic Party candidate Olaf Scholz are pictured before a televised debate of the candidates to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor in Berlin, Germany, September 12, 2021. Michael Kappeler/Pool via REUTERS
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(L-R) Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz, Alliance 90/The Greens leader Annalena Baerbock and Christian Democratic Union leader Armin Laschet are the election’s top contenders

In its camp, many sounded disillusioned with politics in general.

“It’s a difficult election,” one volunteer told us. “I think none of the candidates is fully convincing.

“Someone was joking if Angela Merkel was still up for election she’d probably win because people would say we’ve seen the alternatives, we’d better stay with what we have.”

Another young voter out handing out leaflets was welcoming change.

Germany's Finance Minister Olaf Scholz attends a news conference after Chancellor Angela Merkel and state premiers reached an agreement with the regions most affected by the planned brown coal exit, in Berlin, Germany, January 16, 2020. REUTERS/Michele Tantussi
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Candidate Olaf Schulz has been described as ‘boring’

“Sixteen years of chancellorship is too much I’d say,” Alicem Polat told Sky News.

“We have our candidate, Olaf Scholz, so we definitely say there is someone to replace her.”

“People say he’s boring,” I interject.

“He is, I admit, but maybe that’s the German way of politics.”

Alicem Polat said Angela Merkel has been chancellor for too long
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Alicem Polat said Angela Merkel has been chancellor for too long

And there’s the rub. The likely next chancellor Olaf Scholz, Germany’s current finance minister, has no political pizzazz or charisma.

But that may be a good thing to voters.

Unsettled by the loss of Ms Merkel and the pandemic, Germans will take quiet, boring competence over excitement.

He is also the last person standing for now at least in the polls.

Ms Merkel’s heir apparent should have been Armin Laschet.

Election posters of Germany's top candidates for chancellor, Armin Laschet, North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader, Olaf Scholz, German Minister of Finance of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of Germany's Green party and Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP) are pictured, in Berlin, Germany, September 16, 2021. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
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(L-R) Election posters of Armin Laschet, Olaf Scholz, Annalena Baerbock and Christian Lindner

But the new Christian Democratic Union leader has slipped on a banana skin thrown up by recent disastrous floods.

In the background, while dignitaries made speeches honouring the floods’ victims, Mr Laschet was caught on camera sniggering.

His standing took a beating in the polls.

So much for the CDU.

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet holds a news conference in Berlin, Germany, September 13, 2021. REUTERS/Michele Tantussi
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CDU candidate Armin Laschet was caught on camera laughing while dignitaries made speeches about flooding victims. File pic

The floods should have been a godsend for the Greens, clear evidence of the dangers of climate change.

And yet Annalena Baerbock, their leader, has been unable to sustain an early lead in the polls.

Accused of plagiarism and lack of experience, she has floundered ever since.

So for now Mr Scholz remains the favourite to win the lion’s share of the vote, giving him the chance to build a coalition.

Max Meyer, political scientist at Bonn University, told Sky News his alleged lack of personality may be just what Germany needs.

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July: Angela Merkel meets the Queen during her visit to the UK

“That makes him probably a better leader,” he said.

“Because it’s more pragmatic and it’s not the theatrics or the big flashiness of charisma, but it’s more policy issues and it’s more policy-driven.”

He may be what Germany wants after Ms Merkel, but the shoes he has to fill are enormous if he wins.

Max Meyer said Olaf Schulz's lack of personality may be just what Germany needs
Image:
Max Meyer said Olaf Schulz’s lack of personality may be just what Germany needs

Ms Merkel rode out the euro crisis, the migrants crisis, the financial crisis and handled autocrats and allies with a firm fairness that soothed tensions and protected German interests.

“I think Germany is going to be very soon nostalgic,” said Mr Meyer, “and probably most will look back with very positive feelings because she was capable of managing crisis and of portraying the country still as stable.”

Germans are going to miss their Mutti.

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Piers Morgan joining new channel talkTV where he will present ‘global show’ | Ents & Arts News

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Piers Morgan has revealed his next presenting job will be for new television channel talkTV – which is being set up by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

The company, which will launch its new service next year, said Morgan’s nightly show will be broadcast in the UK, the US and Australia.

He left Good Morning Britain earlier in the year, after criticising Harry and Meghan’s comments in an interview they gave with Oprah Winfrey, saying he did not believe some of the things they said, particularly around mental health.

The show was recently cleared by Ofcom, after tens of thousands of complaints were made about it.

Talking about his new role, Morgan said: “I’m thrilled to be returning to News Corp, which is where I began my media career more than 30 years ago.

“Rupert Murdoch has been a constant and fearless champion of free speech and we are going to be building something new and very exciting together.

“I want my global show to be a fearless forum for lively debate and agenda-setting interviews, and a place that celebrates the right of everyone to have an opinion, and for those opinions to be vigorously examined and challenged.

“I’m also delighted to become a columnist for The Sun and the New York Post, two brilliantly successful and popular newspaper brands.

“I’m going home and we’re going to have some fun.”

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‘A good day for free speech’ – Piers Morgan

Executive chairman of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch, added: “Piers is the broadcaster every channel wants but is too afraid to hire. Piers is a brilliant presenter, a talented journalist and says what people are thinking and feeling.”

In the past, Morgan has been hired by ITV, CNN and NBC in various presenting roles.

News Corp said its new channel will “offer a mix of programming from our stable of household brands, proper hourly news bulletins, documentaries, entertainment and more”.

The company already owns established news brands such as The Times and The Sun newspapers, as well as a number of radio stations such as Virgin and talkSport.

News Corp had previously scrapped plans for a linear news channel, and instead decided to focus on streaming its radio brands online, while rival GB News pushed ahead with its launch.

Responding to News Corp’s announcement, GB News tweeted: “Congratulations to Piers Morgan.

“We love competition. Bring it on!”

In the US, Morgan’s show will be carried on Fox Nation, while Sky News Australia will broadcast it down under.



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