Sunday, November 23, 2014

Google: sour Lollipops, sour grapes & other reports

Google has had a bad rap this last week with criticism coming from a hardcore of its otherwise loyal fans angry at bugs in the company's latest Android software. The technology giant has also been criticised by some European politicians who claim the company has become too big and needs to be broken up.

Sour Lollipops

There was an outpouring of anger from many tablet users over the last few days after an OTA [Over The Air] update severely affected the operation of their devices.

Early adopters of Google's latest Android operating system warned others of problems with the software on social networks and in a Google discussion thread which ran into more than 20 pages in a little over a week.

Many users of the Nexus 7 tablet, made my Asus and once a flagship product of the Chocolate Factory, said their device began to run slowly and repeatedly crash after the software update. Some complained their tablets had become "unusable".

While there were hundreds of comments related to the issue on the thread, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks, Google has been almost completely silent. Their silence has only compounded the anger felt by some Nexus 7 owners.

Some forum users were a little more pragmatic, believing that Google would likely come up with a fix, but nonetheless criticised their silence.

"I would be a lot happier - and a great deal more patient - if an official Google representative made an announcement," one forum user said.

Perhaps something to the effect of "We are aware that this update is causing serious problems for some, if not all, Nexus 7 users. We are working hard to find a fix to this, and we aim to send out a further update soon which will rectify these issues.  We apologise if these users have felt that we were ignoring their complaints, but we have been working very hard to find a solution, and appreciate your patience and forebearance [sic]."

The lack of any coherent message from the tech giant and frustration felt by users prompted some to suggest conspiracy theories. Some claimed that Google may have foisted the update on Nexus 7 tablets, rendering them useless such that people might upgrade to the new flagship Nexus 9 tablet.

However, such a move would likely be counter-productive given the vitriol coming from some forum members, some of whom said they were tempted to move to the Apple ecosphere and were unlikely to trust Google again.

Google had not been entirely quiet, and reportedly told The Register that it was looking into the matter.

"We're aware some Android users are facing issues and are looking into what might be the cause," a spokesperson for the advertising giant told the technology website.

Nonetheless, the message was not getting through to owners of Android devices and particularly Nexus owners who were beginning to feel the name may have been chosen for a reason.

Google's choosing the Nexus name was deemed by some as somewhat ironic given the demise of its branded products. "Why oh why did Google name its own special brand of devices after the replicants in Blade Runner which had artificially limited life spans?" ITWire's Alex Zaharov-Reutt wrote. "Was this a secret sign from Google all along, hidden in plain sight?"

He has a point given the rather quick cycle of Nexus products. The Nexus One was only released in 2010 yet its low memory and its inability to be upgraded beyond Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread has made the device redundant.

There are still those who still use the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively, but many owners experience performance issues after only three years of use and support has ended for both these phones which for most people remain on Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.2.1.

Indeed, the latest Android slogan "be together, not the same" seems only to count for those with the latest Android devices [BBC / Independent / Daily Mail / PhonesReview / 9to5Google / The Register].

EU call for Google break-up

It wasn't just Nexus and other Android users that were berating Google this last week. Some MEPs have called on Google to be broken up to curb its dominance of the Internet. The European Parliament is reported to be calling for the firm to be split into separate components in the most audacious attempt yet to loosen its grip on the sector.

A draft motion backed by several MEPs and leaked to the Financial Times said investigators should look at "unbundling search engines from other commercial services".

This would mean separating Google's search functions from other features such as its YouTube video-sharing website, or its Internet maps service [Daily Mail].

But many users of the search giant have criticised such plans suggesting that it amounted to sour grapes. Google is successful because it is good at what it does, people posting in comments sections said. "What about the the big boys in their own back yard? such as Nestle," one person responded angrily.

"The fact is that everyone who uses Google does so by choice, most of the time because it is simply better. Only in the EU is success viewed as a crime," another person posted. "I've got an idea for the next Olympics, let's not give medals to the winners of events, it's obviously unfair that they're better than the others."

The proposed plans come after several months of criticism coming from certain parts of Europe, particularly Germany and France.

Much of the anti-Google stance emanating from Germany soon after the Snowden revelations which claimed Google were in collusion with the NSA and were spying on German politicians and ordinary citizens.

In the months that have followed Google has been accused of privacy violations [Techcrunch] and of exploiting the copyright of others by publishing news snippets fron German newspapers in its Google News portal.

The search giant eventually decided to stop publishing such snippets in October [WSJ]. But while Google certainly benefits from its news portal, so too do publisher since traffic is often directed to their site from the Google News page.

Indeed Germany's biggest news publisher Axel Springer has since scrapped a move to block Google from running snippets of articles from its newspapers, after finding that traffic to its sites had plunged.

A Google spokesman in Germany praised the turnaround and said, "The decision shows that Google is making a significant contribution to the economic success of news publishers." [Reuters]

Google is the target of a European antitrust investigation into the operations of its online search business. The US firm accounts for more than 80% of the European Internet search market and more than 90% of that in Germany.

The European Union's new digital commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in October that he was mulling a regional Internet copyright levy, taking aim at Google. However such plans are likely to fail in the long term.

Whilst Google last year agreed to pay 60 million euros [$75 million] into a special fund to help French media develop their presence on the Internet, search engines will not be required to pay publishers in France for displaying content.

Google, as a search engine, is merely trawling and displaying what is available on the Internet. Should publishers not wish results to be displayed they have of course two options. The first is not to publish publicly on the Internet. The second is to request that Google not index their site. Of course by doing so will drive down web traffic, as Germany's publisher Axel Springer has found.

Others have also had to backtrack on such decisions. Rupert Murdoch also found that traffic to The Times and other News International publications dropped significantly when he ordered the search giant to stop indexing its sites. Thus Murdoch eventually made a U-turn and allowed Google to once again show snippets of its publications.

Misunderstanding of modern web

There is not just a fear of Google that exists in Germany and elsewhere [NYT]. There is also a misunderstanding of the way the web works and how well a company performs. Google is only successful simply because it is good at what it does.

There are many other search engines but they often fall flat when compared to Google.

Google for example has indexed more than 40 billion webpages while Microsoft's Bing search engine has only indexed 13.5 billion pages. Russia's Yandex and China's Baidu do well on their own turf, however they are clearly not as powerful as either Google or Bing. Yandex is largest search engine in Russia with about 60% market share within the country, but beyond its borders Yandex has barely been heard of. It also falls flat on the number of pages indexed, reportedly numbered at less than 2 billion. China's Baidu also does well in its own territory and amongst Chinese nationals living abroad. However it has only indexed a reported 740 million web pages, the lowest of all the major search engines, and many are even according to its founder Robin Li mostly Chinese pages.

However Baidu has an advantage in China, not so much to do with how good it is as a search engine, but more to do with the political and business environment existing in China.

Li has been criticised for tolerating censorship, piracy, and lax advertising standards, but he argues that search is a different game in China. He may be right. Li cited Google, one of his major global competitors, as an example of a firm that stumbled after expanding to China.

The US company met significant resistance from the Chinese government, especially on the issue of censorship. After repeatedly running afoul of regulators, Google chose to exit mainland China in 2010 and redirect its web traffic through Hong Kong. And Baidu was the direct beneficiary of Google's woes with traffic soaring after Google left and censorship to Google domains increased.

Return to China

But four years on there are reports Google may be thinking of returning to China. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google is considering bringing a version of its Play mobile-app store to China, a tentative but important step back into the Middle Kingdom.

In Google's absence, there are multiple Android app stores in China, spawning piracy and prompting many developers to hire large teams just to manage relations with the stores. In the US and across much of Europe just two app stores dominate; Apple's App Store for iPhones and iPads and Google's Play Store for Android mobile devices.

To bring order to the app chaos in China, and of course boost revenue, Google wants to open a version of its Play Store there. It may prove an uphill struggle. At present most Android phones sold in China are stripped of Google apps and its flagship Play Store which often cannot even be installed on the device.

The company will also face a battle with authorities and legislators if it wishes to play in China once again. Google has declined to comment on these reports, just as it has been rather silent on Lollipop issues.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

GCHQ boss calls for increased surveillance powers

A little over 400 years ago a man named Guy Fawkes conspired with others to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England's Parliament [Wikipedia - Gunpowder_Plot]. He failed in his attempt after the plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, on 26th  October 1605. During a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4th November 1605, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder and he was arrested.

In more modern times security services are not always so lucky as to receive anonymous warnings related to potential terror attacks. Instead they have to be proactive and carry out surveillance on suspects they believe may be involved in the planning of atrocities.

In recent decades the security services and police have still relied on informants, but they have also infiltrated organisations and terror groups and conducted surveillance operations.

But in the advent of the Internet traditional surveillance is outdated.

Hiding on the Web

No longer is it possible to send in an undercover officer to hide amongst terror groups, animal rights activists and environmental groups.

In the past those involved in such groups would often meet in person, at pubs, in parks or other venues to discuss plans. Extremist Muslim groups might gather and meet up at mosques while animal rights activist would use the cover of demonstrations to organise and plan direct action.

But nowadays people hide themselves in the anonymity of the Web and more particularly the Dark Web.

The increased use of the Internet to organise and plot illegal activities has raised alarm in security circles. Whilst there is no absolute anonymity on the Net, it is more difficult for authorities to track individuals and identify potential attacks.

Calls for more surveillance

This week the UK's spy chief Robert Hannigan called for ISPs and tech companies to open up their networks to allow security services to conduct in depth data mining.

In an article published in the Financial Times Hannigan said Web giants such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp had become "command-and-control networks... for terrorists and criminals" and that they were "in denial" about how their services were being used [BBC / Sky News / Daily Mail].

Data mining

While it is true that terror groups such as ISIL and other extremists have used Facebook, YouTube and other platforms to disseminate their message, wholescale data mining would likely have little impact especially in the long term.

In the short term many individuals might well be identified. But in light of recent self-censorship by Twitter and Facebook concerning the posting of graphic beheading videos has shown, extremists have merely shifted to new platforms [Independent].

In the weeks that followed the deletion of material from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Islamic extremists siding with ISIL began to use Diaspora, a social network that by its very nature is harder to regulate and censor [tvnewswatch: Social media provides battle ground for terrorists].

Bitcoins, Tors, VPNs and the Dark Web

Surveillance is proving ever more difficult as those wishing to hide their Internet activities increasingly use specialist encryption software, web proxies and digital currencies.

The Tor network was originally developed with the US Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications.

However it has increasingly been used by ordinary members of the public wanting to hide their identity.

There are examples where many might see such use as legitimate. In China and Iran many people use Tor or VPNs [Virtual Private Network] to circumvent Internet censorship and communicate with people outside the country. Dissidents in such countries use such tools to avoid being arrested.

However, the Tor network and VPNs have increasingly been used by those wanting to share copyrighted material such as music and feature films without fear of prosecution. But while illegal, the sharing of ripped CDs and DVDs only hurts the profits of musicians, filmmakers and production companies.

But there are others using circumvention software to plan terrorist activities without being watched [BBC Click - online anonymity 17/05/2011 audio].

Moreover, the so called Dark Web is also being used to buy and sell illegal merchandise from child pornography to drugs and weapons. And by using virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, even financial transactions are virtually untraceable.

Bitcoin and Dark Wallets

There has already been suggestions that Jihadist groups may be funding operations with Bitcoin. According to a post entitled "Bitcoin and the Charity of Violent Physical Struggle" on a pro-ISIL blog, the author argues donations using the virtual currency would be "untrackable" by Western governments [Sky News]. 

In February this year, the Canadian government warned that Bitcoin could be used for money laundering and financing terrorism. There are those that say that money laundering is not so easy, but that its use as a way of buying and selling with anonymity is certainly an advantage for criminals and terrorists.

Author of the book BitCon Jeffrey Robinson has dismissed the currency, calling it a "pretend currency". He says "Bitcoin is a lousy way of laundering money" but "a very good way for criminal finance, tax evasion and for capital flight; for moving money." [YouTube]

Indeed it is because of the anonymity associated with Bitcoin use that is fast making it the currency of choice for criminals and and terrorists [Could Dark Wallet hide Bitcoin user identity? BBC Click].

Growing encryption

Hannigan has an uphill battle on his hands if he wants to win over legislators. While the risks to Britain and the West from terrorism and others is real, his proposed measures will likely bring only minimal results.

Encryption is growing and becoming more sophisticated. Indeed it is something we are reliant upon since without it online banking would be impossible. But online encryption has now entered everyday platforms with most Google services being encrypted and with social networks such as Facebook even creating the ability for users to connect directly to the social network via anonymising "dark web" service Tor [BBC].

There is an ideological issue too. Civil rights groups such as Big Brother watch argue that while discussions are certainly needed, blanket surveillance is not the answer.

Discussion in the media point to strong opposition to the GCHQ boss's proposal [Sky News].

It is understandable that GCHQ and the US counterpart, the NSA, want to carry out surveillance. The revelations earlier this year that the British spy agency had snooped on YouTube and Twitter users was hardly surprising [BBC / NBC]. 

Indeed similar assertions had been made two years ago following the Snowden leaks concerning the NSA surveillance program PRISM [Guardian].

Double edged sword

Data mining is perhaps necessary to some extent. But such procedures need to be carefully guided. Too much data mining not only treads on the toes of those concerned about privacy, it also creates a headache for security services.

Sifting through massive amounts of data necessitates the use of computerised algorithms to identify potential threats and links between suspects. Thus surveillance should be targeted [Guardian].

There are no clear winners. Increased surveillance may uncover plots, but may also send the plotters elsewhere. On the other hand, while the public may be safer from terror attacks, some may feel increasingly paranoid that their online activity is being monitored.

How long for instance before journalists or bloggers researching terrorist activity become targeted and charged for possessing illegal material. What of those who illegally download a film or album? Will they too find themselves in court as a result of increased surveillance powers.

The danger is that such powers that Hannigan proposes risks Britain becoming a totalitarian state envisaged by George Orwell in which Thought Crime is punishable.

Protection of the state and the public must ultimately be balanced as to how far we are prepared to give up our freedom in order to stay safe

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween: harmless fun or a growing menace?

Halloween is once again upon us, a festival dating back hundreds of years. But while many people enjoy this annual event, it is a celebration which many others now dread.


Halloween is observed in a number of countries on the 31st of October. The true origins are still one of debate, but there are indications that the festivities were connected to the end of the harvest and to pay homage to the souls of the dead with the lighting of candles and taking part in eating, drinking and games.

Many people might think the idea of Trick or Treat is a modern or even American import. However the roots of such activity can be traced back several centuries to places in Ireland and Scotland. In parts of southern Scotland a man dressed as a Láir Bhán [white mare] led youths house-to-house reciting verses, some of which had pagan overtones, in exchange for food. If the household donated food it could expect good fortune from the 'Muck Olla'. Not doing so would bring misfortune. The wearing of costumes at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century, as did the custom of playing pranks.

The festival is closely associated with Christian celebrations. According to some scholars, All Hallows' Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots.

Modern day festivities

However, today Halloween is associated with guising, ghouls, ghosts, Trick or Treat and of playing pranks. But rather than paying homage to the dead, most Halloween celebrations are focused on dark, sinister and murderous imagery.

Television schedules will be filled with tales of horror, and films such as John Carpenter's Halloween are dug up for a repeated showing.

Those taking to dressing up for Halloween no longer adorn traditional costumes depicting ghosts, witches or werewolves. Instead one is more likely to encounter people replicating characters from horror films from the last two decades such as the Scream, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. More recently zombies have become popular due to the growing number of movies which began with George A. Romero's 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.

Commercial overload

As the 31st of October approaches shops are filled with merchandise. From the humble pumpkin to aisles full of witches hats, broomsticks and spray on cobwebs, one can't walk more than a few metres around a supermarket without being reminded the witching hour is upon us.

The sweet aisle is overloaded with special Halloween candy for the obligatory Trick or Treat adventures. As we stroll past the fruit and veg we are reminded to buy apples for Apple Bobbing and as one passes the bakery we are thrust into a land of Halloween cakes, donuts and other ghoulish confectionery.

Trick or Treat

For kids, Halloween is perhaps harmless fun. There is the joy of dressing up as a witch, ghost or skeleton before engaging in party games. Some may even join their parents and knock at their neighbours in a game of Trick or Treat.

But Halloween is becoming increasingly sinister as older children and youths harass householders and play pranks that could be considered anti-social or even criminal.

Egg throwing has become such a problem in some areas around the time of Halloween that some supermarkets ban their sale to young people.

Intimidation and dangers

Police say the tradition of "Trick or Treating" has resulted in many people having eggs thrown at them and their property. Anyone on the receiving end can feel intimidated, but the elderly can feel particularly threatened [BBC].

The practice can also prove to be dangerous. Throwing eggs at moving vehicles can be extremely dangerous as it could cause drivers to lose concentration and have an accident.

Aside of the risk to life, throwing eggs at vehicles can cause thousands of pounds of damage. Damage might be minor with just a mirror being broken. However damage can be much worse. Protein in the egg can damage the paint surface and may result in the car needing a respray. For high end cars the cost could run into thousands of pounds [ / Popular Mechanics].

Eggs can even break windows, especially when the vehicle is travelling at speed, and can dent a body panel or chip paint where the shell breaks.

There have also been isolated incidents where people have lost their sight. A nurse was blinded in one eye when an egg was thrown at her from a passing car in March 2008 in Dublin [Irish Independent]. And in 2005 a boy in Long Island also lost sight in one eye after teenagers from a local high school threw eggs out of a passing car during Halloween.

In the US Halloween pranks are becoming more and more extreme with the cost to property owners and motorists running into millions of dollars.

Violent attacks

But more disturbingly this year has seen violent attacks in the run up to Halloween with people dressed as clowns attacking passers-by on the streets of France [Telegraph / Guardian].

And in recent days there have been reports that the chilling pranks have also spread through US and Britain as Halloween approaches.

"Evil" tradition

It is perhaps no wonder that some people are fed up with the annual Halloween festival and have even called for it to be banned [CBN]. It's a debate that has gone on for at least a decade [BBC]. Indeed the Vatican has called the event "evil" [Daily Mail].

However there would be no easy way to enforce such a ban, only mitigate potential property damage through restrictions of the sale of certain products, increasing police patrols and informing people of the consequences of anti-social behaviour.

The Daily Mirror suggests there are several reasons why we should keep Halloween. The paper claims that aside from its ancient origins, people "love to be scared". Try telling that to a French passer-by who was recently accosted by an axe waving clown as she got out of her car in the Avenue François Trinquand in Chelles, on the eastern outskirts of Paris.

The Mirror describes describes Trick or Treat as "a wonderful neighbourhood activity in some areas". Some areas, maybe. But for a great many people, the time of Halloween is one of foreboding and an unwanted aftermath of clearing up egg splattered cars, houses or worse.

"Bottom line...It's fun!" the paper finally exclaims. Tell that to the police, insurers, irate motorists cleaning egg from their vehicles or the Dublin nurse who will never experience a 3D showing of Final Destination 5.

Despite all this, most people manage to enjoy the Halloween festival without incident [BBC]. Whatever you do this year on Halloween, try to stay safe, out of trouble and avoid the ghosts, demons and ghouls.

Happy Halloween

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Google unveils new Nexus products at premium prices

This week Google unveiled its latest Android operating system along with three new devices that will undoubtedly have Android fanboys salivating. However the expected price points will likely put many people off despite the high specifications of the new offerings from the Chocolate Factory.

Lollipop, lollipop

Android 5.0 otherwise known as Lollipop promises to change the face of Google's mobile operating system. The company describes the update as a "quantum leap forward" due to its revamped design and new features []

Security has been upgraded with all new devices being encrypted by default. But on the surface the changes will also be apparent with a slicker more customizable user interface. Google also talk of better information sharing across devices [BBC / Googlebog].

While Lollipop certainly looks promising, it is the three new devices that have got the Android community excited [BBCD Mail].

Nexus 6 'phablet'

First up is the much talked about Nexus 6 phone made by Motorola. This new device has been described more as a phablet than a phone given it falls halfway between the size of an average smartphone and a tablet device .

Coming in at 159.3 x 83 x 10.1mm and with a nearly 6 inch [150 mm] display, one will certainly need big pockets and large hands. And while some people on web forums have questioned the size of the device, phablets are becoming more popular. Indeed the Galaxy Note was particularly popular, especially amongst business people who demanded the flexibility of a tablet like device with the functionality and more notably the connectivity of a smartphone. In fact the Galaxy note and Nexus 6 have almost identically sized screens [5.7 inches and 5.96 inches respectively].

However the Nexus 6 is in a different class when looking under the hood, though the cameras are arguably better on the Galaxy Note [BetaNews].

Some have unsurprisingly begun to compare the Nexus 6 with the iPhone 6+. Even here the Nexus 6 beats the Apple device on almost everything. However Apple offers 16, 64 and 128GB devices while the Nexus 6 only comes in 32 and 64GB.

And while design may be a factor for some, the Nexus 6 certainly appears well crafted [ITProPortal / GottaBeMobile / Independent].

The most important consideration is of course cost. A SIM free iPhone 6+ will set you back around £619 for the 16GB model with the 64BG device costing £699 and the 128GB version pricing in at £789.

While only US prices have been published thus far, Google's Nexus 6 will cost $649 for the 32GB device and $699 for the 64GB model. This would equate to around £406 and £437 respectively, though tax, import costs and other factors could swing these figures either way - though more likely upwards. However with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 currently priced at around £400 for a 32GB model, even these price points are certainly competitive [IBT].

Nonetheless, Google has received a fair bit of criticism for its apparent departure of marketing affordable yet powerful Android devices [Google+].

Nexus 9

After the success of the Nexus 7 tablets, Google has jumped a number and released the Nexus 9. Again the specifications are excellent, and the new tablet even supports a specially designed optional keyboard.

However, the price of the HTC manufactured device is once again likely to make many people, even Nexus fans, balk at spending out so much on a tablet.

It could well be argued that Google are attempting to offer better, premium quality products. But in so doing there is a cost both in terms of the product itself and of alienating loyal fans.

Again only US prices have been published but it is estimated that consumers could be looking at paying £330 for the 16GB tablet, £400 for the 32GB device and around £500 for the 32GB model which comes with 4G connectivity.

The official Google Keyboard Folio case, for the soon to be released Nexus 9, is of course an optional extra. The device is held in with magnets, pairs with the tablet using NFC and turns the tablet on and off when opened and closed. The keyboard has mechanical keys, and while needing a separate charge is said to last months between charges. The price is as yet unknown, but given the price points of the aforementioned gadgets it is unlikely to be cheap.

A real Android fanboy could well be expecting to shell out around £1,000 if purchasing both the top spec versions of the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9. Even if grabbing the lower spec versions one will still be looking at a little over £700.

It is perhaps unsurprising that many users have expressed their likelihood of holding on to their Nexus 4, 5 and 7 devices, at least for the time being. The good news is that all these devices will still receive the Lollipop update in the coming weeks.

Further forays into TV & the car

The one device that made less of an impact in the news is the Nexus Player, Google's latest foray into TV. Built by Asus it allows users to stream movies, music and videos to through an HDMI connection. It also acts as an Android gaming console if used in conjunction with an optional Bluetooth gamepad. There's no news on the price of the gamepad as yet but the Nexus Player will cost around $99 or about £69.

Google are also planning to invade the car with built in Android devices offering navigation, music and telecommunications. Dubbed Android Auto Google describes its plans to incorporate its OS into the car as having been designed with safety in mind. "With a simple and intuitive interface, integrated steering wheel controls, and powerful new voice actions, it's designed to minimize distraction so you can stay focused on the road," Google says.

A number of manufacturers have expressed interest with several already incorporating the new technology in its latest models. It remains to be seen whether one will be able to retrofit older models.

As for the release dates on Google's latest gadgets, they should hit online and physical stores in November. Pre-orders for the Nexus 9 and Nexus Player start on October 17th, but Nexus 6 pre-orders are not expected until October 29th. The devices will not start shipping until early November which at least gives consumers a couple of weeks to start saving!

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Hong Kong protests dwindle with no clear winners

Hong Kong's C Y Leung may be breathing a sigh of relief that the Occupy Central protests are gradually withering away, but both he and Beijing have been woken up to the fact that political reform in both Hong Kong and the mainland is both necessary and inevitable if China is to progress forward.

Exhaustion and fear

C Y Leung had given an ultimatum that the protesters clear the streets by Monday morning [6th October] or face being forcibly removed. However, hundreds remained, defying both him and Beijing.

The numbers had dwindled significantly, however. Following the tear gassing of protesters numbers swelled to tens of thousands, filling streets across the main business district of Hong Kong and essentially shutting down the financial district to traffic [BBC].

But after the a week of protesting, singing and speech making fatigue began to take its toll. Many had slept on the streets for days, only popping home for a shower before returning.

There was also the fear that authorities might become more heavy handed, and whilst unlikely, there were some that feared a repetition of Tiananmen [CNN].

Another factor that also saw a dwindling of numbers was purely financial. Whilst businesses complained of losing money due to the demonstrations, the protesters too had taken time off of work as well as study [BBC].

After nearly two weeks of protest there was also a fading of media interest. Following the tear gassing of protesters there was a sudden deluge of news articles and media coverage. Indeed it got to a point that there was information overload coming from some news outlets.

Wake-up call

However, despite what might be seen as a withdrawal and giving in to demands to leave the streets, the protest has left an indelible mark and shown both Beijing and Hong Kong authorities that something needs to change. Talks have been promised but few are hopeful they will lead anywhere [Reuters / BBC / BBC].

The protests have also shown there are divisions in Hong Kong. Idealistic, forward thinking students have battled with angry triad gangs and shopkeepers in Mong Kok [Time]. The older generation have meanwhile largely stayed away and kept quiet, and whilst some have expressed sympathy for the students' cause, many feel that the disruption to the city was counter-productive [Time].

In the short term there may be few concessions. But the very size of the protests will be a wake up call to the government that political change must be addressed. If not, the next wave of protests may not be so peaceful. Indeed they may well be armed with more than just umbrellas.

With the elections of 2017 only months away it remains to be seen how the demands of the protesters are met. The real question mark hangs over 2047 when Hong Kong becomes a part of China proper. [Wikipedia: 2014 Hong Kong Protests]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hong Kong faces uncertain future as protests grow

Thousands have filled the streets of Hong Kong in the past few days calling for true democracy in the run up to 2017 elections in the Special Administrative Region.

But their calls have been largely ignored by both Beijing and the Hong Kong governments. Beijing has called the protests illegal, and stirred up by hostile western forces. Meanwhile authorities in Hong Kong have struggled in how they might respond to the protests which have swelled, drawing tens of thousands onto the streets.

Largely peaceful 

The Occupy Central protests have been largely peaceful, but tensions boiled over late Sunday evening local time with police firing volleys of tear gas into the crowd.

Such displays of force, especially on a peaceful group of demonstrators, is relatively unprecedented. Tear gas has only been used in Hong Kong once in the last decade under Chinese rule, but is was also used under British colonial rule during the 1967 riots.

Its use has been criticised by the protesters and some western media outlets, especially given the mostly peaceful nature of the demonstrations. However Chinese media has said the police have shown "restraint" in the face of "illegal" demonstrations aimed at bringing chaos and which "ruin the image of Hong Kong" [Global Times / Xinhua / Global Times / BBC]. China has also ramped up censorship on the Internet [CNN]. Meanwhile Western media has largely remained neutral or sided with the protesters.

Media coverage

As regarding the level of reportage, the protests have been ignored to a great extent both inside mainland China and outside Hong Kong.

Few news stations in Britain gave anything more than a few minutes coverage to the demonstrations throughout the last week. However following the volleys of tear gas late Sunday CNN scrubbed regular programming and gave up more nearly 12 hours of coverage almost entirely to the Hong Kong protests.

The same was not true of other major news outlets. Sky News, the BBC news channel, Al Jazeera, RT and France 24 only occasionally dipped into the events on the ground.

On Monday the story topped headlines on CNN, France 24 and Al Jazeera, though due to the Conservative Party conference in Britain the story was pushed to one side on the BBC and Sky News.

Effect on markets

The impact of the demonstration has affected business across the important global financial centre. The Hang Seng lost some 2% in the day and some 44 bank branches were closed.

Since being handed back to China in 1997 Hong Kong has been a Special Administrative Region, ruled under a so-called "One country, two systems" policy. However, there are fears amongst its residents that in the future the region will be swallowed up by the mainland, essentially becoming one country with one policy that covers the whole region.

In 2017 there will be more open elections, but the way candidates are chosen and ratified by Beijing, has angered people in Hong Kong who say this does not come up to their expectations of true democracy.

Voting rights

Currently only a select few can vote for the Hong Kong

While there is a great deal more freedom in Hong Kong, 15 years after the handover from British colonial rule many Hong Kong residents fear that China is reneging on its promises. With only 12 hundred people eligible to vote in a city of 7 million, residents are calling for a bigger say in the war the Special Administrative Region is run. Beijing says that it has considered a real election allowing everyone to directly elect its leader by 2017 and legislators by 2020.

Although full universal suffrage was never granted by the British to its colony before the handover in 1997, some democratisation began in 1984. However little has changed over the last 18 years despite countless protests calling for greater democracy in the region.

However, mainland China has maintained a firm grip on power over the SAR and many of the political candidates are hand-picked by Beijing. In the Hong Kong Chief Executive election of 2012 Albert Ho Chun-yan stood little chance in being elected. He faced off with two pro-Beijing opponents, Leung Chun-ying and Henry Tang. Both were backed by the Chinese Communist Party, and there are widespread allegations that Leung himself was even a member. Both have also been accused, by opponents, of being involved in various scandals ranging from extra-marital affairs to corruption.

As the electorate, consisting of only 0.02% of the Hong Kong population, went to the polls in March, others held their own mock election to protest the lack of true democracy [Al Jazeera - YouTube] . But such protests fall on deaf ears, and are certainly not reported in mainland China. And with most of those voting showing loyalty to Beijing it was no surprise that Leung clinched the leadership role.

But while these new protests may unnerve Beijing, but they are unlikely to cave in to the protesters demands.

In accordance with the "One country, two systems" principle agreed between the UK and the PRC, the socialist system of PRC would not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and Hong Kong's previous capitalist system and its way of life would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years until 2047.

In fact while much of the focus has been on 2017 and the next Hong Kong elections, 2047 is also a significant milestone. Will the freedoms currently enjoyed in the region be eroded? And will business be affected?

Future uncertainty

There may certainly be a drain of confidence in the markets if protests continue, but there are also concerns for the future amongst those that do business in Hong Kong. Indeed the uncertainty of what will happen after 2047 is clearly an issue for those that do business in Hong Kong.

The protests have spread across much of Hong Kong and beyond the central business district. This will be of concern not only for Hong Kong authorities but also for Beijing who will be worried that any concessions may spark protests for democracy in mainland China.

The protests may have been largely peaceful, but the world will be watching closely worried perhaps that the continued demonstrations could precipitate a response similar to the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989.

Read more: tvnewswatch: Hong Kong anniversary protests raise questions for all sides / Sky / BBC / BBC / CNN / D Mail

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Is Britain now a Disunited Kingdom?

The violent scenes in Glasgow on Friday night between Yes and No supporters may have been isolated, but they point to the clear divisions that have been stirred up by the Scottish independence debate and referendum.

Unionists flooded parts of Glasgow on Friday evening taunting and jeering nationalists who they saw as traitors to Britain. Some protesters, draped in the union flag, were seen making Nazi-style salutes whilst shouting chants of "England".

The protests were relatively small with only 80 police needed to contain the situation as pro and anti independence campaigners fought on the streets, some throwing chairs and flares at each other [Daily MailDaily RecordFT / Russia Today]

However the images that will be seen around the world will be uncomfortable for Westminster who would prefer that the decisive No vote showed there was a clear mandate that the people of Scotland wished to remain a part of the Union.

50/50 split

In fact only a little over half the the people of Scotland voted to remain part of the UK, and many say they were pushed towards voting no to independence because of the scaremongering in the last few days of the campaign.

The No vote defeated the Yes vote in Thursday's referendum by 2,001,926 to 1,617,989, a national split of 55% to 45%.

There have also been accusations of vote rigging and electoral fraud though it is unclear whether these cases will be investigated or if they played any significant part in the process [BBC / Sky News / Daily Mail / Metro / GuardianRIA - Russian].

What is clear, is that Scotland is deeply divided. Many who voted no, have expressed a desire to have gone the other way but felt some fundamental questions, particularly about currency and finance, had not been addressed by the Yes campaign.

Dreams & nightmares

As first minister Alex Salmond announced his intention to step down on Friday he said the campaign for independence would continue and "the dream shall never die" [BBC / BBC].

But for millions of Scots, the decades ahead may prove to be more a nightmare. Many may also ponder the question "What if?". The younger generation, particularly, may feel aggrieved. Statistics showed that younger people were more likely to have voted Yes whilst older people voted No [Guardian]. There were also clear geographical divisions too with some parts of the country leaning more towards the No camp than others [BBC]. 

Back in Westminster, the No vote brought cheers with promises that there would be political reforms and changes to the way both Scotland and the rest of Great Britain was to be governed. But less than two days later there were already signs of divisions in parliament as leaders on both sides disagreed with each other.

Political divisions

Labour party leader Ed Miliband signalled he would not sign up to Prime Minister David Cameron's plan for a new UK-wide devolution settlement in the wake of the Scottish referendum.

Cameron wants enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament and new powers for English MPs at Westminster agreed, in draft, before the 2015 election.

However, Miliband wants a "constitutional convention" after the election to discuss devolution plans for England. One reason he is reticent to discuss English devolution and address the West Lothian question is that Labour might also lose some sway in the Commons [BBC / Telegraph / Guardian / Telegraph].

English opinion

As for the people of England, opinions vary widely. Some have expressed disappointment at the No vote, hoping to be rid of the Scots that they see as a drain on English taxes.

Most people in England overwhelmingly reject the Scottish Government's claim that independence would have improved relations between the two countries, with only 10% believing that it would.

However, surveys carried out a month before the referendum showed that English people wanted a much tougher stance on Scotland if it decided to say in the Union.

Some 56% of those polled said that public spending in Scotland should be reduced to the UK average following a No vote, while 63% believed that Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on English laws, a clear indication that many felt the West Lothian question should be tackled.

For some English people feelings are less strong. "It's a matter for the Scots," said one shopper on Saturday, "I'm just glad it's all over."

If only she were right.

tvnewswatch, London, UK