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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Pakistan Lifts, Then Reinstates YouTube Ban

As my colleague Salman Masood reported on Twitter, online rejoicing at the end of Pakistan's three-month ban on YouTube was short-lived on Saturday, as the government reimposed the ban shortly after it was lifted following reports that copies of a low-budget film mocking the Prophet Muhammad appeared in searches of the site.

Just hours after the assistant director of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority ordered internet service providers to “immediately unblock/restore” YouTube, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf “issued orders to block YouTube again,” a senior official told Agence France-Presse.

According to Pakistani journalists, the prime minister decided to reinstate the ban after the television channel Geo News reported that Pakistanis could still view the “Innocence of Muslims” film on YouTube, despite claims that the government would block the clip using filtering software.

Although Pakistani bloggers blamed Geo News for the reimposed ban, one of the channel's journalists who had searched for the offensive clip, Mansoor Ali Khan, mocked the government for the re versal and argued that he had only intended to demonstrate that the original ban had been ineffective. He noted that the prime minister acted less than 24 hours after Interior Minister Rehman Malik had announced that access to the site would be restored.

Another Geo News reporter, Maria Memon, wrote that she would not defend the role her station played in the debacle, but suggested that the some members of the government prefer to have the site blocked and had used the report as an excuse.

The government's sudden reversals on Saturday caused several Pakistani commentators to bitterly denounce the country's leaders for pandering to religious fundamentalists.

In a post headlined “The Great YouTube Escapade,” the blogger Kala Kawa concluded:

A confluence of idiocy of the sort that we see on a regular basis in Pakistan has ruled again. Courts that have somehow come to believe that they represent the will of the people, create orders that limit our agency in one wave of their robe. Journalists who have inflated their sense of self to the point where they no longer recognize themselves, inform us of how we ought to behave in our private lives. A civilian government that proclaims itself to be secular bends to the will of every right-wing demand at the expense of those that are ideologically aligned with them.

Unfortunately, none of this is new to us. Even worse, this is far from the last time something like this will happen to us.

Plane Crashes Near Moscow, Killing at Least Two

Footage of a plane that crashed near Vnukovo airport.

A Russian passenger jet overshot the runway at Vnukovo airport near Moscow on Saturday and crashed into a highway, killing at least two people, according to media reports, pictures and video of the episode.

Photographs show the plane, a Red Wings airline Tupolev 204, according to The Associated Press, broken into pieces, its cockpit torn from the rest of the fuselage.

A video shows the tail of the plane, which officials said was coming from the Czech Republic carrying at least eight people, was sheared off in the crash. Others were injured, but reports on precise numbers were conflicting.

The Web site The Aviation Herald, whi ch collects official information on aviation incidents, reported that the plane “overran the end of the runway, broke through the localizer antenna, the airport perimeter fence, broke up and came to a stop on elevated highway M3 about 400 meters/1200 feet past the runway end.”

The cause of the crash was not immediately clear. The BBC reported that Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia had called for an investigation.

Rescuers worked at the site where a plane crashed at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow on Saturday.Alexander Usoltsev/Associated Press Rescuers worked at the site where a plane crashed at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow on Saturday.
Prior to Saturday's crash, there had been no fatal accidents reported for Tu-204s, which entered commercial service in 1995.Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press Prior to Saturday's crash, there had been no fatal accidents reported for Tu-204s, which entered commercial service in 1995.
The plane's cockpit area was sheared off from the fuselage.Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press The plane's cockpit area was sheared off from the fuselage.
The crash occurred amid light snow in Moscow.Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images The crash occurred amid light snow in Moscow.
Police investigators and emergency services teams worked at the crash site.Andrey Smirnov/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images Police investigators and emergency services teams worked at the crash site.

Federal Power to Intercept Internet Messages Is Extended

Federal Power to Intercept Messages Is Extended

WASHINGTON - Congress gave final approval on Friday to a bill extending the government's power to intercept electronic communications of spy and terrorism suspects, after the Senate voted down proposals from several Democrats and Republicans to increase protections of civil liberties and privacy.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 73 to 23, clearing it for approval by President Obama, who strongly supports it. Intelligence agencies said the bill was their highest legislative priority.

Critics of the bill, including Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican, expressed concern that electronic surveillance, though directed at noncitizens, inevitably swept up communications of Americans as well.

“The Fourth Amendment was written in a different time and a different age, but its necessity and its truth are timeless,” Mr. Paul said, referring to the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. “Over the past few decades, our right to privacy has been eroded. We have become lazy and haphazard in our vigilance. Digital records seem to get less protection than paper records.”

The bill, which extends the government's surveillance authority for five years, was approved in the House by a vote of 301 to 118 in September. Mr. Obama is expected to sign the bill in the next few days.

Congressional critics of the bill said that they suspected that intelligence agencies were picking up the communications of many Americans, but that they could not be sure because the agencies would not provide even rough estimates of how many people inside the United States had had communications collected under authority of the surveillance law, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The inspector general of the National Security Agency told Congress that preparing such an estimate was beyond the capacity of his office.

The chief Senate supporter of the bill, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, said the proposed amendments were unnecessary. Moreover, she said, any changes would be subject to approval by the House, and the resulting delay could hamper the government's use of important intelligence-gathering tools, for which authority is set to expire next week.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was adopted in 1978 and amended in 2008, with the addition of new surveillance authority and procedures, which are continued by the bill approved on Friday. The 2008 law was passed after the disclosure that President George W. Bush had authorized eavesdropping inside the United States, to search for evidence of terrorist activity, without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.

Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, said that he and Mr. Wyden were concerned that “a loophole” in the 2008 law “could allow the government to effectively conduct warrantless searches for Americans' communications.”

James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told Congress, “There is no loophole in the law.”

By a vote of 52 to 43, the Senate on Friday rejected a proposal by Mr. Wyden to require the national intelligence director to tell Congress if the government had collected any domestic e-mail or telephone conversations under the surveillance law.

The Senate also rejected, 54 to 37, an amendment that would have required disclosure of information about significant decisions by a special federal court that reviews applications for electronic surveillance in foreign intelligence cases.

The amendment was proposed by one of the most liberal senators, Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, and one of the most conservative, Mike Lee, Republican of Utah.

The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, said the surveillance law “does not have adequate checks and balances to protect the constitutional rights of innocent American citizens.”

“It is supposed to focus on foreign intelligence,” Mr. Durbin said, “but the reality is that this legislation permits targeting an innocent American in the United States as long as an additional purpose of the surveillance is targeting a person outside the United States.”

However, 30 Democrats joined 42 Republicans and one independent in voting for the bill. Three Republicans - Mr. Lee, Mr. Paul and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska - voted against the bill, as did 19 Democrats and one independent.

Mr. Merkley said the administration should provide at least unclassified summaries of major decisions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

“An open and democratic society such as ours should not be governed by secret laws,” Mr. Merkley said, “and judicial interpretations are as much a part of the law as the words that make up our statute.”

Mrs. Feinstein said the law allowed intelligence agencies to go to the court and get warrants for surveillance of “a category of foreign persons,” without showing probable cause to believe that each person was working for a foreign power or a terrorist group.

Mr. Wyden said these writs reminded him of the “general warrants that so upset the colonists” more than 200 years ago.

“The founding fathers could never have envisioned tweeting and Twitter and the Internet,” Mr. Wyden said. “Advances in technology gave government officials the power to invade individual privacy in a host of new ways.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 29, 2012, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Federal Power To Intercept Messages Is Extended.

Questions Remain Over Hewlett\'s Big Charge on Autonomy Acquisition

The $5 billion fight over accounting allegations at Hewlett-Packard shows no sign of abating.

In November, H.P. took a $8.8 billion charge as it wrote down its acquisition of Autonomy, a British software company that it acquired in 2011. H.P. said that “more than $5 billion” of the charge was related to accounting and disclosure abuses at Autonomy. H.P. added that a senior executive at Autonomy pointed to the questionable practices after Mike Lynch, Autonomy's founder and former chief executive, left H.P.

Mr. Lynch denied the allegations. In November, he said the accounting moves that H.P. highlighted were legitimate under international accounting rules, and he demanded that the company be more specific in how it arrived at the $5 billion number. H.P. on Thursday released its annual report for its 2012 fiscal year, noting that the United States Justice Department “had opened an investigation relating to Autonomy.”

The report discusses the methodology it employed when making the $8.8 billion charge, but it did not break out exactly how the alleged accounting improprieties were behind $5 billion of that charge.

Mr. Lynch seized on that. In a statement on Friday, he said that H.P.'s report had “failed to provide any detailed information on the alleged accounting impropriety, or how this could possibly have resulted in such a substantial write-down.”

This accounting rabbit hole has real world consequences.

H.P. management, led by the company's chief executive, Meg Whitman, has proceeded with a feisty certainty since the outset of this spat. If the $5 billion figure is not ultimately substantiated, shareholders may doubt H.P. management's judgment. Also, annual reports are supposed to be exactly the place that investors can go to get their questions answered.

The fact that the $5 billion part of H.P.'s case is not repeated there should give shareholders pause. The report avoids words and phrases that would help a reader understand just how much of an impact the alleged improprieties had. The report says lower financial projections for Autonomy contributed to the write-down. In one part, it said those financial projections “incorporate” H.P.'s analysis of what it believed to be improper accounting. In another section, the report says the changed financial projections were “driven” by the alleged abuses.

That sort of language led Mr. Lynch to say in his Friday statement that, “H.P. is backtracking.”

H.P., however, says it's doing nothing of the sort. In a statement released after Mr. Lynch's on Friday, the company. said, “As we have said previously, the majority of this impairment charge, more than $5 billion, is linked to serious accounting improprieties, disclosure failures and outright misrepresentations.”

The statement also appeared to respond to the criticism that more details about the $5 billion should have appeared in the annual report. H.P. said the report, “is meant to provide the necessary overview of H.P.'s financial condition, including our audited financial statements, which is what our filing does.” The company added, “We continue to believe that the authorities and the courts are the appropriate venues in which to address the wrongdoing discovered at Autonomy.”

Sifting through the Autonomy weeds could obscure the bigger question: Was everything above board at Autonomy? H.P. may have overstated the impact of what it calls improprieties in the charge. But Autonomy may still have had unreliable numbers that overstat ed its value at the time of its acquisition.

Mr. Lynch says the poor performance of Autonomy once it was part of H.P. was down to H.P.'s mismanagement. But it could also have been because the new owners were not benefiting from the accounting that they have since questioned.

In some ways, the most intriguing detail in this mystery is the supposed whistle-blower who brought the accounting issues to management's attention. This person may have been able to show how what he or she believed to be chicanery was hidden from the accounting firms that checked Autonomy's books.

H.P. has enough performance issues that its executives will probably see the Autonomy issue as a distraction and shareholders may get little extra detail. By the sounds of it, that probably won't satisfy Mr. Lynch.

“It is time for Meg Whitman to stop making allegations and to start offering explanations,” is how he signed off his Friday statement.