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Trump Signs Repeal Of U.S. Broadband Privacy Rules

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday signed a repeal of Obama-era broadband privacy rules, the White House said, a victory for internet service providers and a blow to privacy advocates.

Republicans in Congress last week narrowly passed the repeal of the privacy rules with no Democratic support and over the strong objections of privacy advocates.

The signing, disclosed in White House statement late on Monday, follows strong criticism of the bill, which is a win for AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc.

The bill repeals regulations adopted in October by the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration requiring internet service providers to do more to protect customers’ broadband privacy than websites like Alphabet Inc’s Google or Facebook Inc.

The rules had not yet taken effect but would have required internet providers to obtain consumer consent before using precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children’s information and web browsing history for advertising and marketing.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised the repeal in a statement late on Monday for having “appropriately invalidated one part of the Obama-era plan for regulating the internet.” Those flawed privacy rules, which never went into effect, were designed to benefit one group of favored companies, not online consumers.”

Pai said the FCC would work with the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees websites, to restore the “FTC’s authority to police internet service providers’ broadband privacy practices.”

Republican FCC commissioners have said the Obama rules would unfairly give websites the ability to harvest more data than internet service providers.

The action is the latest in a string of reversals of Obama administration rules. On Monday, the FCC reversed a requirement that Charter Communications Inc extend broadband service to 1 million homes that already have a high-speed provider.

On Friday, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T Inc. said they would voluntarily not sell customers’ individual internet browsing information.

Verizon does not sell personal web browsing histories and has no plans to do so but the company said it has two advertising programs that use “de-identified” customer browsing data, including one that uses “aggregate insights that might be useful for advertisers and other businesses.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said last month Congress should have opposed “industry pressure to put profits over privacy” and added “most Americans believe that their sensitive internet information should be closely guarded.”

Trade group USTelecom Chief Executive Jonathan Spalter in a statement praised Trump for “stopping rules that would have created a confusing and conflicting consumer privacy framework.”

Last week, 46 Senate Democrats urged Trump not to sign the bill, arguing most Americans “believe that their private information should be just that.”

Republicans later this year are expected to move to overturn net neutrality provisions that in 2015 reclassified broadband providers and treated them like a public utility – a move that is expected to spark an even bigger fight.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Trott)

IMAGE: President Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Senate Approves Chao To Lead Transportation Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted 93 to 6 on Tuesday to confirm Elaine Chao as head of the U.S. Transportation Department, which overseas aviation, vehicle, train, and pipeline safety.

Chao, a former U.S. labor secretary and deputy transportation secretary, will face key decisions on how to regulate the growing use of drones and automakers’ plans to offer self-driving cars.

She will also be a key player in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet if his administration pushes ahead with a major infrastructure spending program, as the businessman-turned-politician promised during last year’s presidential campaign.

The Transportation Department has a $75 billion annual budget and about 60,000 employees. It includes the Federal Aviation Administration, which handles air traffic control.

Chao, the wife of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position, also will have to decide whether U.S. fuel efficiency standards should be revised, as some automakers have sought.

There are dozens of other pending regulatory issues facing the next administration, including railroad safety and staffing rules, whether to set rules requiring airlines give more passengers with disabilities seats with extra leg room, and whether to ban or restrict personal phone calls on U.S. flights.

At her confirmation hearing earlier this month, Chao declined to take positions on a number of issues, including whether air traffic control jobs should be privatized, concerns over the safety of shipments of crude oil by rail, foreign airlines’ push to move into the U.S. market, and regulation of developing technologies.

AAA, the largest U.S. auto club with more than 50 million members, praised Chao’s confirmation. AAA CEO Marshall Doney said the group “firmly believes that significant, additional investments are needed to maintain existing infrastructure and to enhance the nation’s (transportation) system.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents major U.S. and foreign automakers, said that from “autonomous vehicles to safety to fuel efficiency to infrastructure, Secretary Chao’s leadership will profoundly impact our sector and many others.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Paul Simao)

IMAGE: Elaine Chao testifies before a Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to be transportation secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Energy Department Rebuffs Trump, Won’t Name Climate Change Workers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Energy Department said on Tuesday it will not comply with a request from President-elect Donald Trump’s Energy Department transition team for the names of people who have worked on climate change and the professional society memberships of lab workers.

The Energy Department’s response could signal a rocky transition for the president-elect’s energy team and potential friction between the new leadership and the staffers who remain in place.

The memo sent to the Energy Department on Tuesday and reviewed by Reuters last week contains 74 questions, including a request for a list of all department employees and contractors who attended the annual global climate talks hosted by the United Nations within the last five years.

Energy Department spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder said Tuesday the department will not comply.

“Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of (the Energy Department) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people,” Burnham-Snyder said.

“We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department,” he added. “We will be forthcoming with all publicly available information with the transition team. We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.”

He added that the request “left many in our workforce unsettled.”

Andrew Rosenberg, an official at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Energy Department “made the right choice in refusing this absurd and dangerous request. Federal agencies need the best available science to respond to the growing risk of climate change.”

Reuters reported late Monday that former Texas Governor Rick Perry is expected to be named by Trump to run the Energy Department. The agency employs more than 90,000 people working on nuclear weapons maintenance and research labs, nuclear energy, advanced renewable energy, batteries and climate science.

The memo sought a list of all department employees or contractors who have attended any meetings on the social cost of carbon, a measurement that federal agencies use to weigh the costs and benefits of new energy and environmental regulations. It also asked for all publications written by employees at the department’s 17 national laboratories for the past three years.

Trump transition officials declined to comment on the memo.

“This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list,” a Department of Energy employee, who asked not to be identified because he feared a reprisal by the Trump transition team, had told Reuters.

Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said in a news briefing on Tuesday that the queries “could have been an attempt to target civil servants,” including “scientists and lawyers and other experts who are critical to the success of the federal government’s ability to make policy.”

By design, their work transcends the term of any one president, Earnest said.

Trump, a Republican, said during his election campaign that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by China to damage U.S. manufacturing. He said he would rip up last year’s landmark global climate deal struck in Paris that was signed by President Barack Obama.

Since winning the Nov. 8 election, however, Trump has said he will keep an “open mind” about the Paris deal. He also met with former Vice President Al Gore, a strong advocate for action on climate change.

After that meeting, he picked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)

IMAGE: A child embraces a globe shaped balloon ahead of the start of the 2015 Paris World Climate Change Conference, known as the COP21 summit, in Rome, Italy , November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Washington Insider Elaine Chao Picked For Transportation Secretary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Donald Trump plans to nominate former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to head the Transportation Department, a source with knowledge of the decision said on Tuesday.

The source, who requested anonymity, confirmed the pick to Reuters. Chao, the wife of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, served as labor secretary under President George W. Bush and was the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position. The formal announcement was expected Tuesday afternoon.

Although Trump spoke on the campaign trail about wanting to “drain the swamp” in Washington, more than half of Trump’s nine key appointments so far have been accomplished Washington insiders, such as Chao.

Chao will face a number of big decisions at the agency that regulates the nation’s vehicles, airplanes, railroads, pipelines, ports and highways – including how to proceed on self-driving cars on U.S. roads, the use of small unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, over people and whether U.S. fuel efficiency standards should be revised.

There are dozens of other pending regulatory issues the next administration will face, including railroad safety and staffing rules, requiring event data recorders in all U.S. vehicles and whether to set rules for airlines requiring they give more passengers with disabilities seats with extra leg room and whether to ban or restrict phone calls made on personal phones on U.S. flights.

She may also take a leading role in Trump’s plans to rebuild U.S. infrastructure. Trump has called for $1 trillion in infrastructure spending over 10 years to rebuild airports, bridges and other projects, but it is unclear how much of the funding would come from the federal budget.

Mitch Bainwol, chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that has urged the Trump administration to conduct a sweeping review of auto regulations, praised Chao as a “superb choice.”

He said the next administration will make important decisions on self-driving cars and how to maximize “the rate of innovation in the technologies that save lives, avoid crashes and improve fuel economy.”

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised Chao’s expected nomination. She will be a “great Secretary of Transportation. She really understands the federal government-can lead rebuilding our infrastructure,” he wrote on Twitter.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats want to work with Chao on fixing infrastructure but “will not allow Republicans to use an infrastructure bill as a Trojan horse for undermining workers’ wages and handing massive tax breaks to big corporations.”

Chao is a former deputy transportation secretary and sits on the boards of Wells Fargo & Co , Ingersoll-Rand Co [IRCOM.UL], News Corp and Vulcan Materials Co .

A Chinese immigrant, Chao arrived in the United States at age 8. Her father, James S.C. Chao, is founder of the Foremost Group, an international shipping company.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

IMAGE: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) waves to supporters with his wife, former United States Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, at his midterm election night rally in Louisville, Kentucky, November 4, 2014. REUTERS/John Sommers II

What Boycott? Pence ‘Not Offended,’ Urges Americans To See ‘Hamilton’

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence said on Sunday he was not offended by rare and pointed comments made to him by a cast member of Hamilton after he attended the hit Broadway show.

“I wasn’t offended,” Pence said on Fox News Sunday, declining to ask for an apology as President-elect Donald Trump had demanded.

Pence acknowledged that many Americans were disappointed and anxious after Trump’s surprise Nov. 8 election victory following a raucous campaign, but he sought to reassure Americans that Trump would be a president “for all Americans.”

After the show on Friday evening, Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays America’s third vice president, Aaron Burr, read a statement directed at Pence, who was in the audience, while standing in front of the cast in full costume.

“We, sir – we – are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” Dixon said.

Pence sought to address Dixon’s concerns, telling CBS in a separate interview that Trump has “a great heart. He’s got heart for the American people” and wanted to reassure “anyone, including the actor who spoke that night, that President-elect Donald Trump is going to be president of all the people.”

Trump criticized the cast in a series of tweets on Saturday and again on Sunday.

“The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday, taking time out from his search for appointees to his incoming administration.

“Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!”

Pence praised the hit show and urged people to see it. Trump called the sold-out show “highly overrated” on Sunday.

Pence noted that there were some boos and cheers when he arrived at the theater. He recalled telling his family of the response: “That’s what freedom sounds like.”

Hamilton is a hip-hop-infused musical that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, a penniless immigrant who rose to become the right-hand man of General George Washington, as well as a key figure in the creation of the U.S. financial system and the creator of the U.S. Coast Guard. He was killed in an 1804 duel with Burr.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Alan Crosby)

IMAGE: Vice President Elect Mike Pence speaks to members of the news media upon his arrival at Trump Tower in New York City, November 18, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar

U.S. Judge Approves $14.7 Billion Settlement Over VW Diesel Vehicles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge on Tuesday approved Volkswagen AG’s record-setting $14.7 billion settlement with regulators and owners of 475,000 polluting diesel vehicles, and the German automaker said it would begin buying back the vehicles in mid-November.

The action by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco marked the latest development in a scandal that has rocked VW since it admitted in September 2015 using secret software in its diesel cars to cheat exhaust emissions tests and make them appear cleaner than they really were.

Under the settlement first announced in June, Volkswagen agreed to spend up to $10.033 billion on the buybacks and owner compensation and $4.7 billion on programs to offset excess emissions and boost zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and other clean vehicle projects.

The affected vehicles emit up to 40 times legally allowable pollution levels. Volkswagen may also be allowed to repair vehicles if regulators approve fixes.

It represented the largest civil settlement worldwide ever reached with an automaker over allegations of misconduct and fraud toward vehicle owners.

In total, Volkswagen has agreed to date to spend up to $16.5 billion in connection with the diesel emissions scandal, including payments to dealers, states and attorneys for owners. The scandal rattled VW’s global business, harmed its reputation and prompted the ouster of its CEO.

The world’s second-largest automaker still faces billions more in costs to address 85,000 polluting 3.0 liter vehicles and U.S. Justice Department fines for violating clean air laws. It also faces lawsuits from at least 16 U.S. states for additional claims that could hike the company’s overall costs.

Breyer turned away objections from owners who thought the settlement did not provide enough money, saying the agreement “adequately and fairly compensates” owners. In addition to the pre-scandal “trade in” value of the vehicle, owners will also receive $5,100 to $10,000 in additional compensation. “Given the risks of prolonged litigation, the immediate settlement of this matter is far preferable,” Breyer wrote.

Volkswagen agreed to make up to $1.21 billion in payments to 652 U.S. VW brand dealers and $600 million to 44 U.S. states to address some state claims.

To date, nearly 340,000 owners have registered to take part in the settlement, and only about 3,500 owners have opted out. Volkswagen must fix or buy back 85 percent of the 475,000 vehicles under the agreement within two years or face additional costs.

Under the Justice Department agreement, VW will provide $2 billion over 10 years to fund programs to promote construction of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, development of zero-emission ride-sharing fleets and other efforts to boost sales of cars that do not burn petroleum.

VW also agreed to put up $2.7 billion over three years to enable government agencies and agencies on Native American tribal lands to replace old buses or to fund infrastructure to reduce diesel emissions and award states about $600 million.

Volkswagen spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan said the automaker expects to begin buying back vehicles in mid-November. The automaker has hired 900 people, including one to be stationed at each dealership, to handle buybacks.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Will Dunham)

Photo: A Volkswagen logo is pictured at the newly opened Volkswagen factory in Wrzesnia near Poznan, Poland September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Obama Says U.S. Race Relations Have Improved, But Work To Be Done

President Barack Obama said in a commencement speech on Saturday that U.S. race relations have improved over the last three decades, but that significant work still needs to be done.

“I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action because there’s still so much work to do,” Obama told about 2,300 Howard University graduates in Washington, acknowledging that racism and inequality still persist. “We cannot sleepwalk through life,” he said.

The United States has faced a number of racial controversies in recent years, including the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, that sparked sometimes violent protests.

The United States has a racial gap in economic opportunities, Obama said, noting that the overall U.S. employment rate is around 5 percent, but it is near 9 percent for African-Americans.

Obama, the son of a white mother and African father, told the graduates to embrace their racial identity.

“Be confident in your blackness,” Obama said, adding “there is no one way to be black … There’s no straightjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”

He added that “my election did not create a post-racial society,” but was one example of how attitudes have changed.

Obama also urged the crowd not to try to prod colleges and universities into disinviting controversial speakers – something that has taken place regularly at campuses throughout the United States.

Howard University is one of about 100 historically black colleges and universities in the United States.

Obama argued that the United States and the world has progressed dramatically since 1983 when he graduated from college.

“America is by almost every measure better than it was” in 1983, Obama said, noting that U.S. poverty rate is down, the number of people with college degrees is up and the number of women in the workforce have risen.

Obama said today’s college graduates are better positioned than any other to address the country’s tough outstanding problems.

“You need a strategy,” Obama said, adding passion and anger are not enough to effect political change and encouraging them to embrace compromise. “Not just hashtags but votes.”

He noted the low voter turnout among young people in the 2014 congressional elections. He told the graduates they needed to vote “every time … not just when you’re inspired.”

But Obama noted an area that has not improved in recent decades – the U.S. prison population – currently at 2.2 million, it is up more than fourfold from 500,000 in 1983.

African-American men are six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated, Obama said, and urged the graduates to lobby the U.S. Congress to pass a pending criminal justice reform measure.

Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, praised Obama’s remarks on Twitter, writing “even conservatives would applaud it.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson, editing by G Crosse)

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama receives an honorary degree conferred upon him by Vernon Jordan before he delivered the commencement address to the 2016 graduating class of Howard University in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts