Saturday, October 2, 2010

Big money, big brother Guy Sorman

All over the world, Internet users entertain romantic delusions about cyberspace. To most of us Web surfers, the Internet provides a false sense of complete freedom, power, and anonymity.

Every once in a while, of course, unsolicited messages and ads that happen to be mysteriously related to our most intimate habits intrude. They remind us that we Internet users are, indeed, under constant virtual surveillance. When the watchers have only commercial motives, such “spam” feels like a minor violation. But in China or Russia, the Internet is patrolled not by unsolicited peddlers, but by the police.

So Russian human-rights activists and the environmental organisation Baikal Environmental Wave should not have been surprised when, earlier this month, flesh and blood policemen – not Internet bots – confiscated their computers and the files stored within them. In the time of the Soviet Union, the KGB would have indicted these anti-Putin dissidents for mental disorders. This supposedly being a “new Russia,” cyber-dissidents are accused of violating intellectual property rights.

You see, they were using Microsoft-equipped computers and could not prove that the software had not been pirated. By confiscating the computers, the Russian police could supposedly verify whether or not the Microsoft software that the activists were using had been installed legally.

On the surface, Microsoft and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s police look like strange bedfellows. But are they? Microsoft’s authorised representatives declared that they could not oppose the Russian police actions, because the Seattle-based company had to abide by Russian law. Such an ambiguous declaration can be interpreted either as active support for the Russian police or as passive collaboration. Moreover, in previous cases, Microsoft assisted the Russian police in their investigations of non-governmental organisations.

Clearly, human-right activists in Russia cannot and should not count on Microsoft as an ally in their efforts to build a more open society. But Microsoft’s ambiguous – at best – behavior is part of a pattern. Indeed, the record of Internet companies in authoritarian countries is both consistent and grim.

Yahoo set the pace in pioneering the active collaboration of Internet and high-tech firms with political repression. In 2005, Yahoo gave the Chinese police the computer identification code for a dissident journalist, Shi Tao. Shi Tao had sent a message in praise of democracy, which the censors had detected. Following Yahoo’s lead, the police arrested him. Shi remains in jail to this day.

At that time, Yahoo’s managers in the United States, like Microsoft in Russia, declared that they had to follow Chinese law. Shi Tao, in his jail cell, was undoubtedly pleased to learn that China is ruled by law, not by the Communist Party. After all, the rule of law is what Shi Tao is fighting for.

Google, at least for a short while, seemed to follow different guidelines in its Chinese business, appearing to adhere to its widely proclaimed ethical principle, “Don’t be evil.” To protest against censorship, the Silicon Valley-based company relocated from mainland China in 2009 to the still relatively free Hong Kong. On the Hong Kong-based search engine, Chinese internauts could read about Taiwan, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, or the Dalai Lama. On, these sources, along with the results of searches using many other forbidden terms, simply did not appear.

Google’s move seemed to reconcile its proclaimed libertarian philosophy with its business ethics. But that reconciliation did not last long: Google, after all, had accepted censorship from the beginning of its efforts in China, in 2006, in order to gain entry into the Chinese market. After six months of life in Hong Kong, money talked: Google reinstated its mainland China service, and with the same level of censorship as before. In the end, Google, not the Chinese Communist Party, lost face.

Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft have thus followed a strikingly similar road: access to lucrative markets trumped ethical anxiety. The tools that they provide are politically neutral. Dissidents try to use them to pursue a democratic agenda. Police use them to detect and repress dissidents. Either way, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google make money – just like, say, IBM, which in the 1930’s sold its computing machines to the Nazi regime: the Nazis used these machines to make the destruction of their victims routine and bureaucratic.

Should we be shocked that Internet companies put profits ahead of morals? After all, they are ordinary, profit-seeking corporations, just like the IBM of Hitler’s era. Internet companies may, more than most, hide their true motives behind ersatz, democratic-sounding slogans, but in the end they are advertising products like any other. In advertising or self-promotion, the choice of words is determined by customer expectations, not by managers’ philosophy, as they mostly have none.

Capitalism is always a trade-off: we must live with unethical behaviour by money-making corporations that provide us with useful new tools. These tools can be used by Iranians fighting dictatorship, or by Tibetan dissidents trying to save their culture. They also can be used to compute the number of exterminated Jews, to arrest a Chinese dissident, or to break a human-rights group in Russia.

Microsoft in Russia or Google in China teach us that capitalism is not ethical: it is only efficient. Entrepreneurs are greedy by definition: if they were not, they would go bankrupt. An open society will never be created or sustained by righteous entrepreneurs or be the mere byproduct of political engineering. Liberty, as always, remains the endeavour of vigilant, free men and women.
Guy Sorman, a French philosopher and economist, is the author of Economics Does Not Lie
© Project Syndicate

Thinking like Dubai Hisham Wyne

An event revolving around the UN Millennium Goals, TEDx Change Dubai, recently gathered three hundred participants at the creek side Dubai Chamber of Commerce. Melinda Gates, wife of billionaire philanthropist and once Microsoft overlord Bill Gates, asked a pertinent question while streaming live from New York.

How is it that Coke can sell 1.5 billion servings daily and dispense to far flung areas that NGOs, Quangos and aid agencies have difficulty reaching with aid or vaccines? It’s simple. Coke’s distribution takes advantage of local entrepreneurs. NGOs often don’t. Entrepreneurs are by nature both disruptive and generative. They distress the fabric of large business through hyper-local knowledge. They nimbly pounce on small market opportunities, or even build them from scratch. They catalyze economic spurts and the birth of cultures and sub-cultures as microcosms of activity appear around them. Their knowledge and drive can often be a powerful catalyst for social improvement.

When entrepreneurs facilitate positive social change, they earn the all-encompassing solace of being termed ‘social entrepreneurs’. The admirable Mohammed Younus of Grameen Bank from Bangladesh is an example. He originated a micro-credit business model that changed many lives for the better, but was not charity. Fred Smith of FedEx is another social entrepreneur. He realised customers were frustrated with fragmented delivery services, and came up with the idea of a unified process under the control of one organisation. But due to distortion by clever marketing and spin, social entrepreneurship can mean almost anything these days.

To separate wheat from chaff, it’s important to recall that the term ‘entrepreneur’ is essential; social alertness, flexibility and single-minded purpose is inherent to small enterprise, social or otherwise. Much of the recent positive change in Dubai is driven neither by altruism nor nihilistic commercialism, but a curious meeting of the twain. Dubai’s nascent art and cultural renaissance is largely due to determined individuals with boundless energy converting industrial warehouses in the Al Quoz district to art galleries, communal spaces and concert halls. These have offered much-needed space for the city’s infantile civil society to function. They have offered a useful platform too for artists, performers, trainers and even other entrepreneurs to congregate.

In similar social entrepreneurial vein, two Emirati brothers, distressed at the inability to find inexpensive healthful food in a city wracked by obesity, started a fusion shawarma shop in Dubai Healthcare City. Their outlet serves a socially nourishing purpose while also offering invaluable shared space, yet also 
generates returns. For a city where progress is often a curious synthesis of laissez faire and rolls of cherry tape, social entrepreneurism has often lent a helping hand. It places the burden of change squarely on the shoulders of residents and not a deux ex machina.

As a thought experiment experiment, let’s turn to the case of domestic help. The relationship is bracketed by mutual dissatisfaction — maids often complain of incessant work and occasional flagrant abuse, while employers mutter about unreliability and an uncanny ability for either employee or household articles to vanish mid-contract. There have been calls for rules, regulations and a greater role for embassies and consulates.

But surely a simpler approach is to treat this as a social entrepreneurial opportunity? Mutual suspicion may be remedied by a meticulous recruitment agency specialising in the field. One that interviews all help, assigns categories and pay scales based on expertise, checks backgrounds scrupulously and ensures opportunistic middlemen are not involved. An agency that insists on dignified living standards, monitors salary transfers, ensures passports aren’t illegally held, guarantees the availability of cellular communication and conducts regular reviews to ensure an abuse-free environment. On the flip side, the agency takes responsibility for absconding, investigates theft accusations, and guarantees replacements in the case of a mismatch. I suspect many households would gladly pay a small premium to facilitate peace of mind and the conscientious use of 
domestic help.

Social entrepreneurship works very well when there is obvious market demand. In Dubai, as elsewhere, demand can lead the enterprising to market opportunities that also foster positive social change. One can be socially proactive while making a profit. Now that’s a 
win-win situation.

Hisham Wyne is a Dubai-based columnist, copywriter and radio commentator ( 
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When will the job be done? Faryal Leghari

The inherent differences over the war in Afghanistan within the US administration have often been brought to light. But the extent to which they run, deep within the system, is only now beginning to make its impact felt. On reading the leaked excerpts of Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book, Obama’s Wars, one can truly marvel at the uncertainty and confusion at the top most decision-making levels.

It seems that the current administration’s policy-making prowess is dictated mainly by considerations such as appeasing their own political backers, the Democrats and securing public support for the next election. President Barack Obama’s desire to withdraw his forces from the war in Afghanistan is undoubtedly genuine enough as was his premature announcement of a withdrawal date set for July 2011. But was it a wise decision to announce the date at a stage when the forecast was bleak and visibility poor? The announcement regarding the withdrawal has literally opened a Pandora’s box from start. Not only has it fanned furious contentions within the US camp it has unwittingly helped the insurgents who are already using this as a crucial morale booster and to win back break away allies.

Contradictory messages coming from US Secretary Defence Robert Gates and military commanders about the feasibility of an early withdrawal and its impact on the war had created a furore. So much so that President Obama has now been forced to clarify the government’s position on the exit from Afghanistan. Speaking to the BBC recently, he said that despite the July 2011 dateline, the US forces would stay till the job is done. 
A reduction in number of troops was in the pipeline for it was anticipated that the Afghan national forces would have attained sufficient numbers and capability to start fending for themselves by then. However, the idea of a complete withdrawal—that translates as desertion for many who are eager to see the Western forces leave—was dispelled 
by the President until attainment 
of the objective for which Afghanistan was invaded.

So what does the United States hope to achieve? If defeating Al Qaeda is the main objective then should not the US discriminate between a global terrorist outfit and a nationalist insurgency? Irrespective of the alliance that was forced upon the Taleban with the invasion of Afghanistan post 9/11, the two remain committed to a different agenda. That is the simple truth of the matter. Furthermore, is the US prepared to extend the ambit of its operations if Al Qaeda disperses its central command to other areas, which it probably has? Has there not been a bungling of sorts in keeping the war aims from intermeshing into each other? Pakistan has long been on the radar for Al Qaeda and key Taleban leaders using its territory for regrouping and seeking safety from the US-led coalition forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

What next? If intelligence was received that bin Laden or Zawahiri among others had slipped into Iran or even India, Bangladesh or any of the Central Asian states to the north of Afghanistan, would Washington do the honours of shifting a full scale operation there? Or would it hunt them down with drone strikes? Not likely. Other states are not likely to tolerate such violations of sovereignty, Al Qaeda or no Al Qaeda unlike Pakistan that continues its feeble protests at yet another drone strike. But all is not lost for a ray of hope recently came with the British secret service MI5 chief saying that the threat from Pakistan was now reduced. He warned of danger from a stronger and resurgent Al Qaeda from Yemen and northern Africa.

With President Obama having already authorised the CIA to conduct special ops and drone strikes against targets in Yemen, there are chances that these might only be a preamble for bigger plans in the making. One more failed (hopefully) terror attack aboard a plane or elsewhere linked to some cleric in Yemen or Somalia might just do the trick. 
The question is when will the job be done? At least, in Afghanistan. Despite professions bout negotiation with insurgents, Washington does not seem ready to break bread with at least Mullah Omar or the Haqqanis’.

Maybe not until they publicly renounce ties with Al Qaeda and prove this by handing over a weighty target from the ‘US most wanted list’.

If Washington feels that it is building an alternate political and security system in Afghanistan that will at the same times be democratic, modern and capable of dealing with the insurgents once it begins to reduce its military commitment, it may be envisioning an Utopian dream. If only there was a political setup in Kabul to realise this. Lack of governance, corruption and fraudulent practices seem to be the only effective factors at play. Following the debacle of the controversy-laden presidential election, even the recent parliamentary elections are feared to be fraudulent to an extent that the results could affect a third of the provinces.

As for the US Afghan doctrine, the only thing that makes any sense is the dichotomy. Starting from the Pentagon to the State Department, the lack of consensus between the civilian and military leadership — and within these two arms of the government — is but visibly apparent. How this affects the war efforts is not difficult to guess. While the lack of a clear cohesive strategy has been often trumpeted as the main reason for lack of progress in this seemingly intractable and unwinnable war, there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed.

Al Qaeda aside, is it not best to look at a political strategy for the country, one that should include all disparate groups including some hated insurgents? Reliance on military means and deluding one’s self that boosting Afghan security capability and governance resources is ‘the’ solution, is foolhardy. It is time for the US to step away from prioritising national interests for others and to think of solutions beyond the box on its own honourable exit albeit after achieving some semblance of security and stability. Sometimes this entails a few bitter sips but is that not preferable to drinking from a chalice of hemlock?

Faryal Leghari is Assistant Editor of 
Khaleej Times and can be reached at