Russia to Build on Mediterranean Fleet by Drafting in Battleships

Russia has revealed its intention to build on its presence in the Mediterranean Sea by increasing its fleet in the region to up to 10 battleships.

The additional deployment will primarily concentrate on the Eastern Mediterranean, the area nearest the Syrian crisis zone, Victor Chirkov, the head of the Russian Navy explained.

“The task is crystal clear: to avoid a slightest threat to the security of the state. This is a general practice of all fleets around the world, to be there when a tension level increases,” Chirkov, who holds the rank of Admiral of the Fleet.

“They are all going to act on the operational command plan of the offshore maritime zone. Russia will be building up its fleet until it is deemed sufficient to perform the task.”

Russia has retained a constant presence in the Sea as a matter of policy since the end of last year, when the Syrian struggle began to escalate from an offshoot of the Arab Spring into an all-out civil war. Currently, it has seven warships patrolling the region.

Moscow’s announcement that it intends to add to its Mediterranean presence was compounded by its decision to send in its flagship missile cruiser, the Moskva – a powerful destroyer fitted with Vulkan missiles, weapons specifically designed to disable large vessels. The ship is being called in from the Black Sea, a region which contains a notoriously high number of Russian naval vessels, and is expected to arrive in the Mediterranean sometime over the weekend.

Chirkov noted that approximately 80 Russian naval vessels are currently operating in international waters, ready to be called to action.

Russia’s decision to move additional ships into the region comes despite it denying at the beginning of the month that it intended to beef up its presence.

At the time, the country’s naval command had criticised the US for adding to its compliment in the Sea. On September 3 the US Navy announced that it would add two warships to the three that were already patrolling the region, significantly boosting its firepower. Together the five now in the region boast upwards of 200 Tomahawk missiles.

Facebook Roll Out New Auto-Play Video Feature on Mobile

Social networking behemoth Facebook has rolled out its latest on-site feature – auto-playing videos in users’ News Feeds.

The move is the company’s most recent attempt to garner attention from prospective online advertisers, with video advertisements also set to be introduced alongside users’ own shared content.

Facebook, which has sought to address investor unease regarding its inability to convert app download figures and “likes” to real revenue since its initial public offering last year, moved to evangelise the impact the feature could have on its app advertising space.

The company explained that videos will begin playing as soon as users scroll over them in their News Feed, but will only begin playing sound once a user has clicked to expand the video. USA Today says that the effect is similar to the effect generated by videos on Vine – a video hosting site that has become immensely popular with teens over the last few months.

Facebook hopes that the feature, which will only be available through the social network’s app for the time being, will allow the company to compete for a slice of the video advertising market, a niche which is set to explode in popularity over the coming years. In 2016, online video advertising is expected to be worth around $8bn in the U.S. alone, double the $4.1bn it’s expected to top this year.

The company began the roll out by testing the feature on a small number of users in the US on Friday. It will expand to the rest of its US base, and eventually to the rest of the world, in the coming weeks.

TechCrunch notes that only videos which originate from the Facebook platform, or from integrated sites like Instagram, will play automatically. Embedded videos from third-party sites like YouTube and Vimeo will have to be played as normal.

The feature’s big reveal took place two days after the Federal Trade Commission announced that it is probing an alteration the company made to its privacy policy back in August. The FTC is investigating if the company infringed on the rights of its users by altering its policy in order to allow it to use users’ images and information for marketing purposes without the consent of the user.

Potential Attack Prompts US State Department Travel Alert

The US State Department has issued a travel alert to all US citizens planning to travel to abroad, advising them to keep vigilant and be aware of the threat of a potential terrorist attack.

The warning, which has already prompted the US government to temporarily shut a number of its embassies around the world, focuses on the threat posed by militant groups linked to al-Qaida in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the department said, without being more specific.

“The Department of State alerts US citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring or emanating from the Arabian peninsula,” read a statement issued by the department.

“Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organisations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August,” the statement explained.

The State Department said that the alert will remain in place for the entire month, expiring effective August 31. It said that its decision to close some embassies was taken purely out of caution and that they will remain closed beyond Sunday – a business day in Muslim countries.

The warning comes as the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan approaches – a period when fighting is traditionally put on hold – approaches.

Several high-ranking legislative officials have spoken out about the seriousness of the threat. Ed Royce, a Republican and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said that the committee is aware of “a series of threats”. “In this instance, we can take a step to better protect our personnel and, out of an abundance of caution, we should”.

House Intelligence Committee member Dutch Rupersberger said that the committee’s most important duty is the protection of American lives and that the warning was not issued as a result of the “regular chit-chat” it normally analyses.

Although the warning is aimed specifically at US citizens, its message has been heeded by a multitude of global bodies, including the European Union, which issued a statement saying it is taking “all necessary precautions” to ensure safety within its borders.

Alerts like the one today are often issued around international events or widely observed anniversaries. One of the last notable alerts was issued by the State Department last year on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, after which the US ambassador to Libya and three others were killed as protests raged in Benghazi.

Media speculation suggests that today’s alert may be somehow connected the inauguration of the newly elected Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, which will take place on Sunday.

The State Department is recommending that all US citizens planning to travel abroad register their plans with the Consular Section of the US Embassy through its travel registration website and that they enrol in the Department’s Smart Traveller Enrolment Programme.

TransCanada to proceed with $12 billion cross-country pipeline

North American energy firm TransCanada Corp has revealed that it has decided to proceed with a $12 billion plan to begin transporting large quantities of oil from the west of Canada to the country’s east coast. The project, which involves constructing a lengthy new conduit, dubbed the Energy East pipeline, is the largest ever undertaken by the company and has been lauded by politicians, interest groups and industry professionals throughout the country.

TransCanada, based in Calgary, hopes to deliver 1.1 million barrels per day through its new pipeline. It hopes to begin supplying terminals in Quebec in 2017 and New Brunswick a year after. The oil will be pumped from receipt points in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Of the 1.1 million bpd that will be produced, 900 million are secured by long-term, binding commitments the company has already entered into with shippers.

Although 3,000km of the pipeline to be used is already underground, a further 1,400km of new pipes will need to be laid through Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The 3,000km already underground is currently used for gas transportation and will need to be converted.

Although the project is yet to receive full regulatory approval, it has been given the thumbs up by two provincial governments – New Brunswick and Alberta – and is hoping to secure the blessing of a third – Quebec – in the near future. It will also be subject to an environmental review.

TransCanada chief executive Russ Girling likened the project to the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Trans-Canada Highway, ambitious ventures which in their time delivered new economic opportunities to millions of Canadians. “This is a historic day for TransCanada and a historic day for our country,” he said.

“Each of these enterprises demanded innovative thinking and a strong belief that building critical infrastructure ties our country together, making us stronger and more in control of our own destiny.”

TransCanada’s announcement was welcomed by Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who said that the new pipeline will mean a better deal for refiners and will provide a way for the country to reduce its reliance on foreign imports.

Alberta finance minister Doug Horner also commented on the news, saying that the pipeline will have a “huge” impact throughout his province. “The impact is going to be huge because obviously if you can move a million barrels per day to the eastern seaboard and get additional markets that perhaps we weren’t looking at getting into as quickly as this, that’s going to have a pretty significant impact on investment decisions for Alberta,” he explained.

The pipeline also has its detractors. Despite receiving ringing endorsements from public officials, some critics are sceptical about whether the project can deliver the energy security and job creation its backers promise. Similar worries have already led to the delay of another project, linking pipelines in Canada with one further south in the United States. The Keystone pipeline, which could pipe 300,000 bpd between the two markets, has been awaiting US State Department clearance for several years. President Obama is expected to make a definitive decision sometime later this year.

As well as announcing that it’s green lighting the development of the pipeline, TransCanada also announced that will partner with Irving Oil in building a new export terminal near Saint John, New Brunswick. The company announced that the new terminal’s capacity will be 30 per cent greater than it had originally planned after receiving greater-than-expected interest from shippers.

Nintendo Returns to Profit Despite Weak Sales

Japanese games giant Nintendo has posted a return to profit for the second quarter of the year despite being unable to reverse declining across the board sales. Nintendo, which is battling hard against larger rivals Microsoft and Sony, benefited from a weaker yen and more favourable trading conditions in the three months to the end of June, the company said in a statement.

Nintendo reported a net profit of $88 million, a significant gain on the $17.2 billion loss it recorded for the same quarter last year. The company’s loss in 2012, it said, was also significantly influenced by currency valuation fluctuations, with the yen much stronger at this time last year.

Sales, the company said, suffered as more consumers turn to cheaper games options, including mobile gaming. Nintendo managed to generate sales of $832 million over the period, a fall of nearly 4% on the same time last year. The company said it hopes the release of a number of new titles including The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will help to revive sales ahead of the holiday season.

Tough economic conditions in Europe and the United States – two of its largest markets – remains one of the company’s largest concerns, it said in its statement, along with the competition posed by smartphone app manufacturers, whose products are continuing to erode console makers’ profits.

To counter the appeal of cheap, or sometimes free, app offerings, Nintendo has released two new high-tech games machines – the 3DS and Wii U. Despite lower-than-expected initial sales figures for the 3DS, the world’s first gaming device with a 3D screen, and the Wii U, the successor to the popular Wii console, the company says it is still confident the devices can appeal to the mass market. The company said that it sold 1.4 million 3DS units in the quarter, way below expectations.

Nintendo says that it will be concentrating on promoting the Wii U through the next few quarters. “For the Wii U system we will attempt to concentrate on proactively releasing key titles from the second half of the year through next year to regain momentum for the platform,” Nintendo explained in its statement.

The comments came after the company posted disappointing console sales figures for the Wii U, revealing that it shifted just 160,000 units between April and June, a drop of 50% on the first quarter of the year. The company blames a series of delays in the console’s release for its slow start. It chose not to alter its prediction of sales of up to nine million units by March next year.

The company refused to be drawn to calls for it to enter the apps market, saying that its consoles aren’t phones, and are part of an altogether different gaming category. It did however take the opportunity to reveal the release of a new black version of the 3DS, which the company says will be available to buy from August 11.

US Regulators Ready to Engage Virtual Currency Operators

A top US regulator has provided the strongest indication yet that Washington is ready to engage virtual currency operators for the first time.

The decision was prompted by the recent fall of high profile digital currency service Liberty Reserve, which operated as a black market bank according to prosecutors, since its incorporation in Costa Rica in 2006.

Bart Chilton, a commissioner at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, suggested that transactions facilitated by digital currency operators may fall under the remit of US tax collectors in an interview with the FT, mentioning transactions completed through the popular – and as of yet unregulated – digital currency Bitcoin.

The news is a positive development both digital currency users, who until now have had to conduct business in an environment with no discernible regulation, and for payment facilitators, who will be welcomed in from the cold by panicked Washington, where Liberty Reserve’s fall, viewed in some quarters as the largest black market operation of all time, has prompted calls for action.

Leading the charge for the integration of virtual currencies to the US tax system is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which is losing out on billions of dollars in tax: Liberty Reserve alone is estimated to have helped its customers hide up to $6 billion.

Bitcoin and virtual currencies like it, known in the investment community as fiat money – tender unrecognised by any government but widely accepted as currency – can sometimes – by intent or inadvertently – result in transactions where no tax is paid.

The IRS began looking at the impact virtual currencies could have on the body’s ability to properly ensure tax compliance in 2007. Though since then has it not kept up with these currencies’ rate of development and could have done more to prevent virtual currency operators from slipping through the cracks, or so says the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which recently published a report on the subject.

As well as providing a critique of the IRS’ handling of virtual currency operators, the office also suggested that integrating virtual currencies and doing business through virtual economies is possible, and can produce taxable income. It also included a caveat however, warning of the dangers posed by “closed flow” transactions: a closed flow is where a buyer purchases an online-based product or service – a film or television streaming subscription or social media game tokens for example – and no real world money or products or services change hands.

Although Bitcoin is viewed by many online spenders as a new and exciting online payment option, and is lauded by its pioneers as a currency of the future, it also has its detractors, and is vulnerable to the ebb and flow of global money markets – another reason regulators are keen to bring the phenomenon under their umbrella. Bitcoin’s valuation hit a sharp incline around March, when the global financial crisis, particularly developments in Europe, saw the value of a Bitcoin – priced at around $19 in January, jump to $190 in April. At present (June 10), one Bitcoin is valued at $121.

The episode attracted a wide range of attention from authorities, including the Federal Reserve, which at the beginning of June announced that it is investigating the risks virtual currencies and online payment facilitators – including Bitcoin and PayPal – could have on global financial markets.

“We have been taking with banking organisations over the last year or two, trying to more carefully understand what the concerns are with these new payment mechanisms,” Agence-France Presse quotes Federal Reserve vice chair Janet Yellen as saying.

Lawmakers are expected to reveal more about their plans to engage virtual currency operators in the weeks ahead.

Netanyahu Warns Against “Wishful Thinking” After Rouhani Election

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the suggestion that Iran will reengage constructively with the international community after the victory of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani in the country’s presidential election as “wishful thinking”, and urged international powers not to ease trade restrictions and embargos imposed on the economically struggling Persian nation.

“The international community should not fall into wishful thinking and be tempted to ease pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme,” the Israeli prime minister warned on Sunday. “Iran will be judged on its actions. If it insists on continuing to develop its nuclear programme the answer needs to be clear – stopping its nuclear programme by any means.”

Netanyahu pointed out that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Iran’s supreme leader – has final say on any decision to scrap the country’s nuclear programme, which Tehran has always insisted is used exclusively for electricity generation.

Netanyahu, who has been a long-standing critic of Iran’s decision to develop nuclear technologies, displayed none of the optimism that the country’s president, Shimon Perez, or justice minister Tzipi Livni, displayed when questioned about their reactions to Rouhani’s election.

Speaking to the press hours after Rouhani was named president, Perez said: “He said he will not go for these extreme policies; I’m sure he specified his policies. But it will be better, I am sure – that’s why the people voted for him.”

Livni echoed the president’s sentiments, describing Rouhani’s win as a victory for the majority of Iranians, who according to poll results, are eager for a more moderate voice to represent them.

Netanyahu’s comments come hours after Rouhani, a former nuclear inspector, insisted that he is ready to open a constructive dialogue with Western powers – a play many commentators speculate the president-elect opted for in order to differentiate him from his staunchly conservative predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was well known for his anti-west views and unwillingness to engage with the international community. Rouhani is not thought to be as enamoured by the prospect of developing a working nuclear programme as the outgoing president.

Netanyahu’s firm words were matched by the Israel’s minister for intelligence Yuval Steinitz, who also expressed reservations about climbing down on sanctions while Tehran still expressed nuclear ambitions. Steinitz claimed that Iran’s nuclear capability was equal to “30 North Koreas”, and that Iran is inches from crossing the “nuclear red line”.  Steinitz warned that allowing Iran to continue to operate nuclear facilities could alter “the balance of power once and for all between Islam and the Western World”.

The extreme picture painted by Steinitz’s was largely at odds with the views of world leaders, some of who are meeting at the Lough Erne resort in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland for this year’s G8 summit. A number of major powers, Russia, and critically the United States, welcomed Rouhani’s election, and expressed an eagerness to open a dialogue with the new regime.

The offices of Russian president Vladimir Putin and US president Barack Obama, who are both attending the summit, released separate statements congratulating Rouhani on his victory.

The Russian president “expressed confidence Hassan Rouhani’s work will further strengthen Russian-Iranian relations,” the Kremlin said.

Washington responded to Rouhani’s conciliatory speech with cautious optimism, seemingly appreciating the incoming president’s attempts to placate the distrust between Iran and the Obama administration. The White House said that it is committed to finding a “diplomatic solution that will fully address the concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme”.

While the United States and Russia have both expressed their willingness to engage with the new regime, it remains to be seen whether Rouhani is willing to negotiate the future of his country’s nuclear programme – a staple of Ahmadinejad’s rule – in order to develop a political equipoise.

“A new opportunity has been created by this great epic, and the nations who tout democracy and open dialogue should speak to the Iranian people with respect and recognise the rights of the Islamic republic,” Rouhani exclaimed after his victory.

Rouhani was elected on the first count, beating five other candidates to win 50.7 per cent of the vote. His nearest challenger, Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, only managed to secure 16.5 per cent of the ballots.