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Large Fire Erupts in Beirut’s Port, Weeks After Massive Explosion

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  • A large fire erupted in Beirut’s port Thursday, triggering panic among residents who are still traumatized by last month’s massive explosion. The Aug. 4 blast of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate left 190 dead, more than 6,000 injured, and 300,000 displaced from their homes. 
  • It’s not yet clear what caused the fire and crews are working to put it out. Residents have been warned to stay clear of the area in the meantime and no casualties were immediately reported. 
  • This is the second fire to break out at the port this week and it comes about a week after Lebanon’s army discovered four tons ammonium nitrate stored near the port.
  • Some believe the fire was set intentionally to hide evidence related to the explosion. For now, residents continue to live on edge as their distrust in the country’s management grows.

Fire Breaks Out 

A huge fire broke out in Beirut’s port on Thursday, terrifying local residents who are still recovering from the last month’s devastating explosion. 

Video posted online shows people running from massive flames and thick black smoke, which can be viewed from miles away. 

The fire was said to have started in a warehouse of a private company that imported cooking oil. It then spread to a separate stock of rubber tires, but as of now, there’s no information about what caused the blaze. 

No casualties were immediately reported, though we some reports of people with shortness of breath. According to the state-run news agency NNA, Beirut’s governor told residents to stay clear of the port area “for their safety” and to allow firefighters to perform their duties unhindered. All roads leading into the port are blocked off, and the Lebanese Army is currently working to help firefighters by dropping water on the flames from helicopters.

Trauma From Last Month’s Blast Lingers 

The fire broke out near a major highway known as a free zone, where companies store goods that have yet to clear customs. That area, like much of the port, was heavily damaged in the Aug. 4 explosion. That explosion was caused by a 2,750-ton stock of ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored for years. Records later showed that government officials knew of the dangerous chemical stockpile but failed to act. 

The blast ultimately left 190 dead, more than 6,000 injured, and 300,000 displaced from their homes. For many, that explosion was the last straw, prompting major protests against longrunning corruption in the country, which was already suffering through its worst economic crisis in decades.

The protests eventually pushed the Prime Minister of Lebanon and his cabinet to resign, though many have still called for widespread reforms that will bring more meaningful change. 

Still, even with the government resigning, fear within the community has persisted. Just last week, the Lebanese Army said it had found more than four tons of ammonium nitrate stored near the port. They disposed of it, but it was a chilling discovery that made many uneasy. 

Then a smaller fire broke out earlier this week, which also caused a scare but was eventually put out by firefighters. This latest fire just builds onto the existing panic. People at the port and nearby neighborhoods have been scrambling flee or hide out of fear that this fire could cause a new explosion.

One local whose car and apartment were destroyed in the last month’s explosion told The New York Times, “I’m telling myself that nothing’s going to happen and it’s probably not a big deal, but you can’t fight the anxiety of opening all the windows, sitting inside a corridor or being jumpy all the time and having people call you, telling you to leave the area.”

Another person who was leaving the area with his wife and kids told Reuters, “I am forced to get them out of Beirut from the smoke and the fire that is happening at the port again.”

With a large fire so close to the original location of the explosion, some have speculated that it was deliberately set to destroy evidence. Others believe it’s just another example of what the country’s mismanagement brings. 

Some, like Lebanese MP Rola Tabsh, are calling for an international investigation into the Beirut port fires.

Beirut has suffocated from the smoke of your oppression. Beirut has burned from the fires of your corruption and arrogance,” she tweeted.

An international investigation now and not tomorrow.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (BBC)  

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TikTok Faces Billion Dollar Lawsuit in U.K. Over Children’s Data Collection Practices

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  • A former U.K. Children’s Commissioner is suing TikTok on behalf of a 12-year-old girl over concerns that the company mishandles the data of users under 13.
  • The lawsuit alleges that TikTok is “a data collection service that is thinly veiled as a social network” and doesn’t clearly tell children or parents how much data it collects nor how it will be used.
  • The complaint seeks several billion pounds and has transformed into a class-action suit, with millions of children across the U.K. and E.U. eligible to take part.
  • TikTok denies all the claims against it, but if the plaintiffs are victorious, then the social media company could be forced to pay thousands of pounds to each affected child.

TikTok Mishandling Data

TikTok is currently facing a serious legal challenge in the United Kingdom over how it uses and collects children’s data.

The claim was filed by former English Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield on behalf of an anonymous 12-year-old girl, although it has since transformed into a class-action lawsuit for children in the U.K. and European Union.

The legal challenge is for several billion pounds, and if successful, could lead to each affected child in the U.K. and E.U. receiving a few thousand pounds.

Longfield claims that TikTok is “a data collection service that is thinly veiled as a social network” and alleges that it takes children’s phone numbers, videos, exact location, and biometric data without sufficient warning. Particularly concerning for her are children under the age of twelve, who aren’t even supposed to use TikTok but do anyways.

Because of their age, they are supposed to get more legal protections over what’s done with their information, and that age range isn’t a small group of children. Longfield claims that 44% of children 8-12 use TikTok, which would roughly be 3.5 million children in the U.K. alone.

Those stats wouldn’t be too surprising, as according to a 2020 fact sheet published by Ofcom, the U.K.’s communication regulator, 50% of children aged 8 to 15 use TikTok.

Scott & Scoot, the law firm representing the case, added in a statement to the BBC that there is so little transparency for children and parents about what’s being done with the info that it’s “a severe breach of U.K. and EU data protection law.”

While every social media site collects large amounts of user data, Longfield targeted TikTok in particular because it had “excessive” data collection policies. Additionally, Longfield is annoyed at how easy it is for kids under 13 to use TikTok, saying, “Clearly, they know under-13s are using it, companies often say kids put the wrong age on but my view is that isn’t good enough.” 

“Knowing kids will do that, you need additional measures to provide more robust verification of children when they are online.”

Not The First Accusation

TikTok denied the accusations and said they “lack merit,” but the claims aren’t without precedent. The company is currently under investigation by the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office for knowingly hosting the data of children under-13 when it merged with Music.ly.

The company was ordered to delete the info and set up an age verification system.

In 2019, the company was hit with a $5.7 million fine by the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. for mishandling children’s data. It was also fined $155,000 in South Korea over similar issues.

The concerns over children’s data have also prompted many countries to consider various legislation to either enact or expand protections on such data. In the U.K., the Online Safety Bill is being considered by Parliament. Meanwhile, in the U.S., members from both parties in Congress have expressed interest in passing laws to curb social media companies that offer services aimed at people under 16.

Longfield’s lawsuit against TikTok is still in its early stages and what happens next remains to be seen.

See what others are saying: (TechXplore) (Reuters) (BBC)

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Netanyahu Loses Key Vote in Knesset, A First Step in Losing Power

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  • A coalition of anti-Benjamin Netanyahu parties gained control of a key committee that will set the legislative agenda as Israel tries to form a new government.
  • The major legislative victory could indicate that the opposition may have a serious chance of forming a majority government when asked to do so by President Reuven Rivlin, which will likely occur in two weeks if Netanyahu fails to do the same.
  • The pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs are all courting a group of right-wing and pro-Arab parties that have yet to declare a side.
  • Convincing all of the parties in either bloc to work together is increasingly difficult, as many have refused to do so if certain parties are brought into their coalitions, leaving Israel with the likely prospect of its fifth election in two years.

Major Roadblock

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost a key vote on Monday in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, that could possibly lead to his fall from power. 

Bibi, as he’s known, has managed to hold onto power throughout the last two years despite his coalition lacking enough votes to form and keep a government. The latest round of elections in late March once again saw Netayanhu lacking the votes to form a majority government. 

For the last few weeks, Netanyahu has been working to cobble together a coalition government. Two weeks ago, he was finally given a four-week deadline by President Reuven Rivlin.

While Netanyahu retains the title of Prime Minister, he doesn’t get to set the legislative agenda without a majority. The authority to set the agenda is granted to the powerful Arrangements Committee. The Prime Minister received his first major defeat in his efforts to set up a government when the anti-Netanyahu opposition managed to get a majority in the Knesset and gain a majority of the seats on the committee. 

Netanyahu made efforts to secure control of the committee, but like his previous attempts to form a government, he relied on the votes from the pro-Arab Islamist Ra’am party, which instead voted with the opposition. 

The move isn’t a complete shock, as small parties such as Ra’am and the right-wing Yamina party compose a central role in the situation by consistently playing both sides in an effort to get a better deal and more power.

Unclear Future

While Netanyahu has lost control of the Arrangements Committee, it’s unclear if that will translate into a long-term majority for the anti-Netanyahu coalition. 

Many of the wildcard players have issues with parties in both coalitions, with some members of each vowing to back out if the others join. 

For example, Netanyahu needs Ra’am to be able to form a government, but its status as a pro-Arab Islamist party puts it into conflict with a large pro-Jewish party in Netanyahu’s bloc, which vowed to back out if Ra’am was brought into the coalition. The opposition faces similar issues trying to get some of the right-wing parties on board to work with Ra’am, as well.

Netanyahu has two more weeks to try and form a government. If he can’t, President Rivlin will likely turn to the leaders in the opposition with a similar request. If no one is able to form a government, then Israel will head to its fifth election in two years.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Metro) (Jerusalem Post)

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New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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