Senate panel plans to issue subpoenas to CEOs of Google, Facebook, Twitter

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Republican Senator Roger Wicker will issue subpoenas to the chief executives of Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc. if they do not agree to testify at a hearing on Oct. 1.

The hearing will discuss a legal immunity known as Section 230 that technology companies have when it comes to liability over content posted by users.

Republican President Donald Trump has made holding tech companies accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices a theme of his administration. As a result calls for a reform of tech’s prized legal immunity have been intensifying ahead of the elections but has little chance to be approved by Congress this year

The committee will issue subpoenas if the technology companies do not agree to appear in front of the committee by Thursday night, a spokeswoman for Wicker confirmed to Reuters.

On Wednesday, Trump met with nine Republican state attorneys general to discuss the fate of Section 230 after the Justice Department unveiled a legislative proposal aimed at reforming the law.

“In recent years, a small group of powerful technology platforms have tightened their grip over commerce and communications in America,” Trump told reporters after the meeting.

“Every year countless Americans are banned, blacklisted and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules,” he added.

Any substantial changes to reform the law will have to wait until after the elections.

The chief executives of Google and Facebook along with Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

A year after deadly Maria, Puerto Rico still struggles with aftermath

Plastic tarps over damaged roofs are seen on houses a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Luis Valentin Ortiz

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Shuttered businesses, blue tarp roofs and extensively damaged homes can still be seen throughout Puerto Rico a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island with 150 mile-per-hour winds, and access to electricity and fresh water remain spotty.

Last month, the U.S. Commonwealth’s government sharply raised the official estimate of Maria’s death toll to almost 3,000 after an independent study. The exact death toll figure remains unknown, and the governor has admitted his administration failed to properly record storm-related deaths.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has refused to accept the new number and continues to joust with many local officials and other critics who complain that the federal response to the storm was inadequate.

“Today is a day to remember those who are not physically with us but left a significant mark after their departure. Hurricane Maria took with it many lives that we will not overlook and that we still remember with a great weight of pain,” Governor Ricardo Rossello said Thursday ahead of a planned memorial event: “One Year After Maria” with religious leaders and government officials.

About 20,000 pallets of unused water bottles are seen along an airplane runway a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

About 20,000 pallets of unused water bottles are seen along an airplane runway a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

U.S. Housing & Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson was also on the island, where he was expected to give an update on his agency response efforts to Hurricane Maria.

The storm knocked out power and communications to virtually all of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents while destroying the homes of thousands.

Even before the Category-4 storm hit, Puerto Rico was financially bankrupt with $120 billion in debt and pension liabilities it cannot pay. A year after Maria, the island is far from prepared for the next big storm, with an ever-fragile power grid, damaged infrastructure and the same crippling debt.

The island’s government initially put the death toll at 64, but the August study by George Washington University estimated that Maria killed 2,975 people either directly or indirectly from the time it struck in September 2017 to mid-February.

Trump has described his administration’s response to the disaster as an “unsung success” and “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.” He further said that “3000 people did not die” following Hurricane Maria.

“If he calls a success or an unsung success 3,000 people dying by his watch, definitely he doesn’t know what success is,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a vocal Trump critic, told Reuters during a recent interview.

Lucila Cabrera, 86, sits at the porch of her damaged house by Hurricane Maria, a year after the storm devastated Puerto Rico, near Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Bar

Lucila Cabrera, 86, sits at the porch of her damaged house by Hurricane Maria, a year after the storm devastated Puerto Rico, near Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, September 18, 2018. Picture taken September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

BRACING

More than 200,000 people left the island after the storm, mostly to the U.S. mainland, according to government data.

There are still some 45,000 homes with so-called “blue roofs,” or tarps installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The San Juan mayor has noted that the island has seen only a fraction of almost $50 billion in recovery funds Congress approved for Puerto Rico, including $20 billion in HUD funds.

“Most of the people that have requested help from FEMA … have not received enough assistance to be able to take care of their problems,” Mayor Cruz said, adding that “a lot of people that don’t have a title deed and they really are not eligible to receive any type of support or help.”

The recovery process after Maria has also seen hundreds of community-driven efforts. During a forum held on Wednesday by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Journalism, community leaders urged for a multisectoral approach to the recovery, rather than a government-only-led effort, which has proven slow and full of missteps.

“We lost people, roofs and houses, but our community worked hard to get back on its feet,” said Wilfredo Lopez, a community leader of the Sonadora neighborhood in Aguas Buenas, which had disaster-trained residents and its own protocols in place before the storm hit.

(Reporting By Luis Valentin Ortiz; Editing by Daniel Bases and David Gregorio)

FCC says appears Hawaii had no safeguard to stop missile scare

A screen capture from a Twitter account showing a missile warning for Hawaii, U.S., January 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media.

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) – Hawaii apparently did not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent a false emergency alert about a missile attack that panicked residents for more than a half-hour before it was withdrawn, a federal official said on Sunday.

Speaking after Saturday’s errant ballistic missile warning to Hawaii residents, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said government officials must work to prevent future incidents. The FCC “will focus on what steps need to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again,” he said.

Officials at all government levels need to work together “to identify any vulnerabilities to false alerts and do what’s necessary to fix them.”

The alert, sent to mobile phones and broadcast on television and radio shortly after 8 a.m. local time, was issued amid raised tensions over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

The message, which was not corrected for 38 minutes, stated: “EMERGENCY ALERT BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

“The false emergency alert sent yesterday in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable,” Pai said. “It caused a wave of panic across the state … Moreover, false alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies.”

Corrections should be “issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out,” Pai said. The FCC probe so far suggests Hawaii did not have “reasonable safeguards or process controls in place.”

The FCC has jurisdiction over the wireless alerts and has proposed technical upgrades to precisely target them to communities. It plans to vote on revisions to the alert system later this month.

Hawaii Governor David Ige said on Saturday he was “angry and disappointed” over the incident, apologized for it and said the state would take steps to ensure it never happens again.

Ige said the alert was sent during an employee shift change at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and that the state had no automated process to get out the word that it was a false alarm. “An employee pushed the wrong button,” Ige said.

Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, spoke to Pai on Saturday and praised him for working “with us on developing best practices on the communications side for states and municipalities to make sure this never happens again. This system failed miserably, and we need to start over.”

A 2013 government audit found the Federal Emergency Management Agency has improved a federal alerting system known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, “but barriers remain to fully implementing an integrated system.”

The system can receive and authenticate internet-based alerts from state and local government agencies and disseminate them to the public.

Some states were reluctant to fully implement a system and that “decreases the capability for an integrated, interoperable, and nationwide alerting system,” the report said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Detroit; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

FCC proposes extra funds to restore Puerto Rico comms

FILE PHOTO: Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies before a Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chairman of the U.S. telecoms regulator on Tuesday proposed making available up to $77 million to fund repairs of communication networks and restore services in storm-lashed Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As of Monday – almost two weeks after Hurricane Maria walloped Puerto Rico, knocking out its electric grid – nearly 90 percent of cell phone sites on the island remained out of service, according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Almost 70 percent of cell towers remained out in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with little progress made over the last week.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai said on Tuesday that he wants carriers to be advanced money from the U.S. government’s Universal Service Fund “to expedite repair and restoration efforts.”

The fund provides federal subsidies to companies to make communications services more accessible and affordable in places where the cost is high.

Pai said he wants the FCC to approve giving carriers “up to seven months of their normal federal support in advance – right now, in a lump sum – to help them repair their networks and restore service to consumers.”

The FCC’s five-member board is not due to meet to consider the chairman’s proposal until Oct. 24, although it could meet earlier if all the commissioners agree.

In a statement, network provider AT&T Inc <T.N> praised the FCC efforts at rebuilding communications infrastructure.

The company will “closely assess the details of the chairman’s proposal as we continue with the recovery and restoration of our network and facilities,” it said.

Wireless companies have been setting up temporary cell sites and bringing in equipment but still face hurdles with widespread power outages.

Much of the landline network was also badly damaged.

 

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Rosalba O’Brien)

 

NSA backtracks on sharing number of Americans caught in warrant-less spying

A security car patrols the National Security Agency (NSA) data center in Bluffdale, Utah, U.S., March 24, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For more than a year, U.S. intelligence officials reassured lawmakers they were working to calculate and reveal roughly how many Americans have their digital communications vacuumed up under a warrant-less surveillance law intended to target foreigners overseas.

This week, the Trump administration backtracked, catching lawmakers off guard and alarming civil liberties advocates who say it is critical to know as Congress weighs changes to a law expiring at the end of the year that permits some of the National Security Agency’s most sweeping espionage.

“The NSA has made Herculean, extensive efforts to devise a counting strategy that would be accurate,” Dan Coats, a career Republican politician appointed by Republican President Donald Trump as the top U.S. intelligence official, testified to a Senate panel on Wednesday.

Coats said “it remains infeasible to generate an exact, accurate, meaningful, and responsive methodology that can count how often a U.S. person’s communications may be collected” under the law known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

He told the Senate Intelligence Committee that even if he dedicated more resources the NSA would not be able to calculate an estimate, which privacy experts have said could be in the millions.

The statement ran counter to what senior intelligence officials had previously promised both publicly and in private briefings during the previous administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, lawmakers and congressional staffers working on drafting reforms to Section 702 said.

Representative John Conyers, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, said that for many months intelligence agencies “expressly promised” members of both parties to deliver the estimated number to them.

Senior intelligence officials had also previously said an estimate could be delivered. In March, then NSA deputy director Rick Ledgett, said “yes” when asked by a Reuters reporter if an estimate would be provided this year.

“We’re working on that with the Congress and we’ll come to a satisfactory resolution, because we have to,” said Ledgett, who has since retired from public service.

The law allows U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on and collect vast amounts of digital communications from foreign suspects living outside of the United States, but often incidentally scoops up communications of Americans.

The decision to scrap the estimate is likely to complicate a debate in Congress over whether to curtail certain aspects of the surveillance law, congressional aides said. Congress must vote to renew Section 702 to avoid its expiration on Dec. 31.

Privacy issues often scramble traditional party lines, but there are signs that Section 702’s renewal will be even more politically unpredictable.

Some Republicans who usually support surveillance programs have expressed concerns about Section 702, in part because they are worried about leaks of intercepts of conversations between Trump associates and Russian officials amid investigations of possible collusion.

U.S. intelligence agencies last year accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 presidential election campaign, allegations Moscow denies. Trump denies there was collusion. Intelligence officials have said Section 702 was not directly connected to surveillance related to those leaks.

“As big a fan as I am of collection, incidental collection, I’m not going to reauthorize a program that could be politically manipulated,” Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a defender of U.S. surveillance activities, told reporters this week.

Graham was among 14 Republican senators, including every Republican member of the intelligence panel, who on Tuesday introduced a bill supported by the White House and top intelligence chiefs, that would renew Section 702 without changes and make it permanent.

Critics have called the process under which the FBI and other agencies can query the pool of data collected for U.S. information a “backdoor search loophole” that evades traditional warrant requirements.

“How can we accept the government’s reassurance that our privacy is being protected when the government itself has no idea how many Americans’ communications are being swept up and stored?” said Liza Goitein, a privacy expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Grant McCool)

Trump to name Republican media firm owner to run communications: reports

President Donald Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is poised to tap a Republican media relations firm owner to oversee his White House communications, according to media reports on Friday.

Crossroads Media founder Mike Dubke is expected to be named White House communications director, CNN, NBC and Fox News reported, a move that could help spokesman Sean Spicer, who has handled both duties since Trump took office last month.

Reuters could not immediately confirm the reports, and Crossroads Media did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CNN, citing two administration officials, said the announcement could come as soon as Friday, adding that Dubke did not respond to a request for comment.

The appointment would help round out Trump’s communications team, which also includes Hope Hicks, director of strategic communications, and Dan Scavino, director of social media.

Trump’s previous choice to serve as director of communications, Jason Miller, declined the job in December.

Dubke’s appointment could help shore up Trump’s messaging efforts.

Spicer and Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway gave differing accounts on Monday before Michael Flynn resigned from his post as national security adviser amid controversy over his contacts with Russia. Conway told a television network that Flynn had Trump’s full confidence, while Spicer soon after told reporters that Trump was evaluating Flynn.

Conway also publicly endorsed Ivanka Trump products in a recent television interview, prompting a call by the Office of Government Ethics for disciplinary action for appearing to violate government ethics rules.

A graduate of Hamilton College in New York, Dubke helped launch another communications firm in Virginia, the Black Rock Group, according to Crossroads’ website.

(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

U.S. sets up ‘communications channels’ for crowded Syria war

A general view shows a damaged street with sandbags used as barriers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State, eager to avoid more clashes between Turkey and U.S.-backed Syrian fighters, is establishing communications channels to better coordinate in a “crowded battlespace,” the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

“The improved coordination of armed activities in Northern Syria will seek to assure the safety of all forces,” said Pentagon spokesman Matthew Allen. “We will not discuss coordination and de-confliction procedures in detail in the interest of preserving operational security.”

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by James Dalgleish)

U.S. concerned by Russian operations near undersea cables: NY Times

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The presence of Russian submarines and spy ships near undersea cables carrying most global Internet communications has U.S. officials concerned that Russia could be planning to sever the lines in periods of conflict, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

The Times said there was no evidence of cable cutting but that the concerns reflected increased wariness among U.S. and allied officials over growing Russian military activity around the world.

The newspaper quoted naval commanders and intelligence officials as saying they were monitoring significantly greater Russian activity along the cables’ known routes from the North Sea to Northeast Asia and waters closer to the United States.

“It would be a concern to hear any country was tampering with communication cables; however, due to the classified nature of submarine operations, we do not discuss specifics,”

U.S. Navy spokesman Commander William Marks told the Times.

Last month, the United States closely monitored the Russian spy ship Yantar, which equipped with two self-propelled deep-sea submersible craft, cruised off the U.S. East Coast toward Cuba, where one cable lands near the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, according to the Times.

Naval officials said the ship and the submersible craft were capable of cutting cables miles (km) deep beneath the sea, the Times said.

While cables are frequently cut by ship anchors or natural disasters and then quickly repaired, Pentagon officials are concerned that the Russians seem to be looking for vulnerabilities at much greater depths where cable breaks are harder to locate and repair, the paper said.

It said the cables carried more than $10 trillion daily in global business and more than 95 percent of daily communications.

(Reporting by Peter Cooney; Editing by Eric Walsh)