Feb. 26, 2012: “Privacy Bill of Rights,” Diplomacy Mistakes

The world has given us some interesting stories this week, from election fights to a proposed “Bill of Rights” for the internet, as well as a military incident that is generating waves of violence throughout the Middle East.

Let’s start with some election coverage. Within the next week, Arizona and Michigan will hold their primaries (Feb. 28), with Washington’s caucuses following shortly thereafter (Mar. 3) and “Super Tuesday” just around the corner (Mar. 6). Given the timing, it should be no surprise to see the political warfare intensify. President Barack Obama has been particularly active this week, tapping the NBA for campaign fundraising while defending his energy policy against attacks from his Republican rivals. Obama ridiculed Republicans, and especially Newt Gingrich, for their “three-point plan for $2 gas.” As Obama put it, “Step one is to drill, and step two is to drill, and then step three is to keep drilling.” For his part, Gingrich was busy promising $2.50-per-gallon gas prices and energy independence for the U.S. through his plan, which relies on domestic drilling endeavors like the Alaskan coast project that Obama blocked last year.

While gas prices have soared over the past few years, the economy as a whole has offered more questions than answers, with plenty of signs that our fiscal status is still floundering even as the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose to its highest level since 2008. With the economic outlook still unclear, most Americans still favor spending cuts over tax hikes in order to balance the federal budget. However, Obama hopes that his bailout of the auto industry, which some analysts claim saved one million American jobs, will give him the edge over Republicans. Worse yet for Republicans is a report suggesting that the national debt would continue to climb under all but one of the remaining right-wing candidates’ plans. So, which Republican would lower the national debt? Ron Paul, who bills himself as the strongest fiscal conservative in the race, yet who, based on projected delegates, sits in dead last in the Republican primaries.

In the meantime, Rick Santorum has been fighting to protect his image, attacking Obama for apparent snobbishness even as Mitt Romney criticized his support for the No Child Left Behind law, among others. With the biggest set of primaries on the horizon, Romney has continued to narrow the gap on Santorum in the polls, but some say that both candidates are vulnerable — Romney’s huge fundraising success and large-scale events can’t hide his modest ideas and the empty seats in the stadiums he rents for rallies, while Santorum touts grandiose plans even as he fails to raise enough money to provide chairs and snacks to attendees. (When you have to call the police because a woman keeled over from standing too long, there’s a problem.) As the Republican contenders desperately fight to stay alive while Super Tuesday looms, Obama is taking the opportunity to remind the public of his promise for immigration reform (a promise on which he has been unable to deliver thus far). As Obama put it, “My presidency is not over. I’ve got another five years coming up. We’re going to get this done.” Come November, we’ll see if the voters agree with him.

The Republicans may be preoccupied with one another, but Obama might need all the help he can get, now that he is facing what could become his version of the Guantanamo Bay scandal that plagued George W. Bush during the latter years of his presidency. Earlier this week, a number of Qurans — the Muslim holy book — along with other religious items were burned in a pile of garbage at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. According to reports, the Qurans had been removed from a local detention center “because they contained extremist messages or inscriptions,” and were then mistakenly placed in the garbage. This incident has since sparked waves of protests across Afghanistan, particularly given the hostile sentiments already at play after a decade of war in the country. Each day since has seen more U.S. soldiers killed in the backlash, prompting a senior Pentagon official and Obama to apologize for the incident. However, Florida Pastor Jerry Jones, the controversial independent presidential candidate who burned copies of the Quran in a demonstration a few years ago, said that the apologies showed that the U.S. government is behaving in a “ridiculous” and “dangerous” manner by tolerating such violence for a mere accident. He also called the apologies hypocritical, since no similar statements were issued after the military deliberately burned Christian Bibles that were sent to a U.S. soldier in 2009. Gingrich agreed, calling the apologies “astonishing” given how many soldiers have been killed since the incident. In any case, no end to the violence is in sight: on Friday, twelve more people were killed in the protests, while two American officers were killed inside in Interior Ministry building yesterday, prompting NATO to immediately pull all of its advisers out of all Afghan ministries in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.

In a development a little closer to home, the Obama administration unveiled plans for a “Privacy Bill of Rights” designed to protect online consumers. The plan relies on major firms like Google and Facebook, who provide advertisements to internet users, abiding by the wishes of users who select “Do Not Track” options. Given that corporate participation in the program will be voluntary, some analysts have speculated that it will be difficult for the White House to get those companies on board. However, several internet powerhouses have already agreed to the terms — perhaps most notably, Google committed its browser, Chrome, to follow “Do Not Track” guidelines, a reversal after years of resisting such opt-out options. Still, it’s difficult to completely trust the corporate giants as this point. After all, when you look at online advertising, we, the internet users, are the product that Google, Facebook, and the like sell to advertisers. When you think about how often Facebook changes its terms of service, it’s easy to be skeptical about any of these companies voluntarily agreeing to hurt their own business.

Even as we point out problems with the internet, though, alternative forms of communication are collapsing. The ever-reliable postal system, for instance, is in serious trouble, as the cash-strapped organization is struggling to compete with the internet and its instant information-delivery methods. On Thursday, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) announced plans to cut as many as 35,000 jobs, adding to the 140,000 jobs they’ve eliminated in the last five years. This latest round of cuts carries an added loss, though: the USPS has identified 223 of their 461 processing sites as targets for consolidation or closure. Worst of all, the service is asking Congress to let it end its annual payment to prefund retiree health benefits and stop all Saturday deliveries, a desperate cost-cutting measure that could further damage its business model.

Let’s close this week with a few technology areas of interest. First, Apple has been in the news a lot over the past few days. CEO Tim Cook is working to promote the first wave of new devices since former CEO Steve Jobs’ passing last year; Cook is calling them “products that will blow your mind.” Yet, the new iPad 3 will apparently look almost identical to the iPad 2, while the Air Force just cancelled an order of almost 3,000 iPad 2 units that were going to be used as electronic flight bags, replacing almost 40 pounds of manuals and navigation charts that normally have to be lugged into the cockpit. Of course, it’s possible that the Air Force may simply be waiting to get the iPad 3 when it debuts, so that may not be a total loss. And Apple scored another victory overseas, as a Shanghai court rejected an injunction request from China’s Proview Technology to block iPad sales in the city. Apparently Proview claims that the iPad infringes on its own trademark for the “I-PAD,” an unrelated product they sold for years before Apple’s device hit the market. Of course, Apple spent $55,000 to buy the patent from Proview’s European parent company, but Proview still says it owns the trademark in China. Still, the case is far from over — Proview’s request for an injunction prior to a formal hearing was denied, but when the trademark infringement case is reviewed in full, the courts could still rule against Apple.

Finally, remember a few months ago, when researchers at CERN measured the movements of neutrinos that appeared to exceed the speed of light? If accurate, the finding that the neutrinos reached their destination about 60 nanoseconds faster than light would have would turn the theory of special relativity on its head — and, naturally, scientists around the world challenged the findings, but no flaw in the measurements were found. Well, CERN researchers have at last uncovered two potential sources of measurement error: a problem with the oscillator using to synchronize the timing mechanisms, and a cable in the cable between the GPS device and the experiment’s main clock that wasn’t fully plugged in. The two errors would have had opposite effects — the oscillator problem could have wrongly increased the neutrinos’ measured time, while the faulty cable connection may have decreased the measured time by as much as 60 nanoseconds. These two errors have thrown the entire experiment into question, particularly since the experiment’s margin of error was 10 nanoseconds. Still, it’s possible that the neutrinos may still have exceeded the speed of light, or even gone faster than previously believed. We’ll know more in March, when these two problems will have been fixed and the experiment run again.

Other articles of interest:
Demolition of Osama bin Laden’s Compound Begins
WikiLeaks suspect Manning defers plea, court-martial begins
Parents need more privacy info about kids’ apps, feds say
Digital devices and the question of privacy
US envoy: Planning underway for other ‘options’ on Iran
Iran: Attack will lead to Israel’s collapse
Widespread shootings, bombings kill 55 across Iraq
Al Qaeda kill 26 as new Yemeni leader is sworn in
Pro-Putin rally in Moscow brings out lots of people, little enthusiasm
Nations consider ultimatum to Syria’s Assad
7 Marines Die in Nighttime Chopper Collision
Girl, 9, ‘run to death’ as punishment for eating candy bar
Researcher: 200,000 Windows PCs vulnerable to pcAnywhere hijacking
First non-game apps show PS Vita’s wider potential
Space Elevator, Going Up
Jupiter, Venus & Moon Line Up This Weekend: How to Watch Online
Study offers strong evidence that colonoscopy saves lives
Doc: 2 teens with tic-like mystery illness ‘all better’

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