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EU vs. Google: When Goliath Pretends to be David

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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The European Commission has opened a formal investigation into Google to ascertain whether or not the company’s operating system, applications, and services have breached EU anti-trust rules.

The Commission is seeking to figure out if Google has engaged in anti-competitive activities in its business philosophy and has tried to abuse what is a dominant commercial position in the European market. This formal inquiry actually goes back five years, when the EU was concerned primarily with Google’s dominance over the advertising search market (at the time it controlled 95% of the EU). The current incarnation of the inquiry now focuses on three main points:

  1. Whether Google has illegally hindered the development and access of rival mobile applications.
  2. Whether Google has prevented smartphone and tablet manufacturers from developing and marketing modified and potentially competing versions of Android.
  3. Whether Google has illegally hindered the development of rival applications and services by tying or bundling certain applications and services with other exclusively Google interfaces.

Google has always refuted such charges, its chief executive boldly declaring things like it is ‘not the gateway to the internet’ and that it was not true that Google would ‘promote its own products at the expense of its competitors.’ It is this last aspect which brings a bit of the surreal into the situation and should leave any sane thinkers of commercial activity in Europe shaking their collective heads. It is truly a farce majeure where two Goliaths desperately want the public to believe they both are in fact Davids.

Companies built upon the prevalence and popularity of the internet have always benefited from what I consider to be a bit of false praise. Whether you want to call them social media platforms, internet service providers, mobile application purveyors or any other semi-technical fancy phrase, the one simple reality of all such entities like Google is this: they are and always will be a BUSINESS first and foremost. The point of business is to be successful. The best success is one that is maximized and leveraged. This by default means earning a dominant position in which there may be rivals and competition, but such challenges must never amount to severe problems or damage to the company’s bottom line or market share. This is the great confusion of people in Western states: the conflation of capitalist rules with democratic principles. It is true the West has done an admirable job of instilling both systems into their societies. But it is not true that capitalism and democracy are two perfectly mirrored sides of the same coin. This is just the naïve mistake of those not bothering to understand how their relationship has always been a tethered and tense one, usually to the benefit of all, but not ever absent discord and disagreement.

Which brings us back to Google: ‘internet companies’ have helped themselves over the years by creating a brand image that emphasizes freedom, access, information, and connectivity. Indeed, in America we often call this process ‘drinking the company Kool-Aid,’ which means buying into your own propaganda. Companies like Google and Microsoft have always been quite enthusiastic about drinking their own Kool-Aid, believing they are somehow not just businesses, but something more: something more valuable and more productive for the overall growth and functioning of free societies all over the globe. It is indeed a wonderful brand image to develop. It also happens to be exaggerated. As long as Google or Microsoft dominate their respective markets, it is easy for them to focus on and proclaim how much ‘more than a business’ they are. Inquiries like the present EU investigation, however, call this mythology into question.

First instinct in the face of accusation is to of course always deny. But let’s examine the statements made by Google more objectively: Google, an ‘internet company’ that specializes in being the first portal for consumers to think of when it comes to net access, does not want to be ‘the gateway to the internet?’ Of course it does. It is almost ridiculous to consider the alternative. Second, as Google begins to grow and diversify its holdings, services, products, and applications, it doesn’t want to promote such products and services over other competitors? Again, of course it does. Why? Simply because it is a capitalist business operating in a global capitalist system. Because if what the Google chairman said was true it would mean Google is literally acting against the fundamental axiom of basic business, indeed of capitalism itself: we create not just to sell but to sell more than anyone else. Which subsequently means Google is acting against Google if it is not remaining faithful to this mission. Which version of reality seems more likely to any rational consumer: Google acting against itself or acting against rivals and competition? A more rhetorical question has never been asked.

The EU’s probe into this leads to a fascinating philosophical question that gets to the very heart of commercial activism and has different answers across the globe: WHO EXACTLY is responsible to guarantee greater competition and access to choice in the market? Should that competition be ‘facilitated’ by government watchdog agencies because businesses inherently cannot be trusted to engender honest competition and consumer choice? Or should it be a much more ‘organic’ process, Darwinian even, where only the best ideas, products, and organizations survive the competition, with the consumers’ actions themselves deciding everyone’s business fate? America has often prided itself on being in the latter school of thought (though anyone who looks closely at American economic policy and economic history knows this is not entirely true) while Europe more staunchly likes to position itself as the champion of the former (again, also not entirely true). These are the dual dilemmas secretly hidden under the layers of the EU inquiry into Google. On the one hand, Google is trying to maintain and secure its brand image as the benevolent and benign Goliath. Not a marauder inflicting damage to the market and consumers, but rather a friendly giant that should be appreciated and left alone. On the other hand, the EU is trying to stand on its own brand image as the Goliath that protects the people and guarantees true commercial freedom. Not an overly meddlesome bureaucracy whose good intentions only end up causing market regression, but rather the sole legitimate power able to stand up for the people against major multinational behemoths like Google.

The irony of ironies is that in this battle between two Goliaths, one commercial and the other political, BOTH try so earnestly to portray themselves as David fighting against injustice. Be wary, Europeans, whenever actors with pockets deeper than the ocean depths both cry ‘woe is me’ and seek to earn your sympathy party. In such cases the only woe is usually your own and the only true sympathy needed is for the consumers of the EU itself. In the end, the decision-making of any Goliath tends to be suspect.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at: https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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Economy

E-commerce: Helping Djiboutian Women Entrepreneurs Reach the World

MD Staff

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Djiboutian women entrepreneurs attended the launch of We-Fi MENA e-commerce, November 13, 2018. Photo: World Bank

Look around any café, bus, doctor’s waiting room or university campus and you will see heads down, fingers tapping as people immerse themselves into their screens. Increasingly, people are using their devices for shopping, with retail sales via e-commerce set to triple between 2004-2021.

Although significant gender gaps exist with internet use, and although online sales are currently dominated by US-based tech giants, this growing e-commerce trend presents an interesting opportunity for small businesses, and more specifically women’s businesses in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

This is a region where women’s economic empowerment is a significant challenge. With a female labor force participation rate of 19 percent, women’s participation in firm ownership at only 23 percent, and a rate of only 5 percent women top managers of firms across MENA’s non-high-income countries, there is significant scope for improving women’s participation in business and employment.

Access to finance also remains a problem, where 53 percent of women-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs) do not have access to credit and 70 percent of surveyed MENA female entrepreneurs agree that lending conditions in their economy are too restrictive and do not allow them to secure the financing needed for growth.

Several obstacles stand in the way of women’s entrepreneurship and access to markets, such as social norms, family care duties, and transportation issues. Not being able to physically access markets to sell their goods or to participate in international trade fairs to market their products is also a challenge.

This is where e-commerce can play a role, allowing women to circumvent these obstacles and sell their products online. For this, they need to rely on e-commerce platforms connecting them to clients around the world, on performant and affordable logistics, and on reliable payment systems. Building the e-commerce ecosystem will be key to allowing women entrepreneurs to access markets and grow their business, thereby employing more women, as data shows that firms run by women tend to employ more women.

The situation for women in Djibouti is no different. Gender inequality in the labor market remains substantial, with less than a third of women between the ages of 15 to 64 active in the labor market. Unemployment among both genders is high, with a rate of 34 percent for men but it is considerably higher for women at close to 50 percent.

Djiboutian women are also at a disadvantage in terms of education and skills to access economic opportunities. Women in Djibouti typically run small and informal firms in lower value-added sectors, which are less attractive to creditors, thus impeding their access to finance. Women entrepreneurs face difficulties accessing finance and launching formal enterprises.

There are, however, opportunities to increase women’s economic empowerment. Over 57 percent of inactive women in Djibouti say that they do not work because of family and household responsibilities. However, they also indicated they are generally not discouraged or prevented from accessing training or work opportunities by male family members, and there are no legal barriers against women’s entrepreneurship.

Years of research have shown, that when women do well, everyone benefits. Research has found women tend to spend more of the income they earn on child welfare, school fees, health care, and food for their families. Empowering women is an important path to ending poverty.

It’s vital to enable women to participate constructively in economic activities in Djibouti. More entrepreneurship will allow Djibouti to benefit from the talents, energy, and ideas that women bring to the labor market.

To help address this issue, on November 13, 2018, the World Bank launched a $3.82 million regional project called “E-commerce for Women-led SMEs.”  The project targets small and medium enterprises run or managed by women that produce goods marketable via e-commerce.

This project is at the crossroads of women’s entrepreneurship and the digital economy, which are two levers for the economic transformation of the region, and that it was very opportune to be able to launch it at the digital economy days of Djibouti.

The launch event took place with the participation of the Minister of Women and Family, the Minister of Economy, the Minister of Communication, the Head of the Women Business Association, and several Djiboutian women entrepreneurs.

The project will contribute to development of women’s entrepreneurship, digital commerce, and the economy in Djibouti and across the region. It will facilitate access for women-led SMEs to domestic and export markets through better access to e-commerce platforms. This will be done by training e-commerce consultants who, in turn, will train and help women-led SME’s access e-commerce platforms.

The project will also aim to ease access to finance for these SMEs by connecting them to financial institutions lending to women, particularly the IFC’s Banking on Women network. It will also work to create an ecosystem conducive to e-commerce by diagnosing regulatory, logistical, and e-payment constraints and supporting governments to lift them.

This launch comes following a successful pilot program in Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan where women entrepreneurs were enabled to export handicrafts, organic cosmetics, and garments to several overseas destinations including Australia, Europe, and the United States.

The development of women’s entrepreneurship and the digital economy—including better access to domestic markets and exports—are essential levers for the development and economic diversification of the MENA region that the Women Entrepreneurs and Finance Initiative (We-Fi) e-commerce project strives to support. The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) is a collaborative partnership launched in October 2017 that seeks to unlock billions of dollars in financing to tackle the full range of barriers facing women entrepreneurs.

World Bank

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Getting around sanctions with crypto-rial

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In April 2018, the Central Bank of Iran banned domestic banks and people from dealing in foreign cryptocurrency because of money laundering and financing risks.

However, the CBI decided to take a more moderate stance toward the digital money and blockchain technology following the imposition of a new round of U.S. sanctions, hoping that the digital technology would facilitate Iran’s international money transfers and let the country evade the sanctions.

Meanwhile, as an oil producer with an oil-reliant economy dominated by petrodollars, Iran settled on the plan to utilize cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology to make up for any drop in oil revenues due to the economic sanctions designed to cut its oil sales.

Moving on the same track as China, Russia and Venezuela, Iran also hopes that blockchainization of state-backed fiats would lead to the demise of the dollar and put an end to the tyrant U.S. policies.

Under the toughest U.S. sanctions ever and blacklisting of Iran from the Belgium-based international financial messaging system (SWIFT), the country’s plan to create an indigenous cryptocurrency is improving incrementally and thanks to highly dynamic nature of the cryptocurrency, it can act as a good means for Iran to skirt certain sanctions through untraceable banking operations.

The CBI has been working with domestic knowledge-based companies to develop a digital currency, called crypto-rial, supported by HyperLedger Fabric technology.

As reported, the Informatics Services Corporation, affiliated to the CBI but run by the private sector, has accomplished development of rial-based national cryptocurrency and when the CBI approves the uses of national cryptocurrency, it will be issued to financial institutions such as banks to test payments and internal and interbank settlements.

Transactions at the state-backed virtual currency are carried out on an online ledger called a blockchain, just the same as Bitcoin, but since the infrastructure is privately-owned it will not be possible for people to mine it.

In fact, Iran is mainly aimed at testing the potentials of blockchain and crypto technology in running its financial system, making banks able to use the tokens as a payment instrument in transactions and banking settlement at the first phase of the blockchain banking infrastructure. The country seems inclined to enjoy the new virtual currency businesses which includes little notice or footprint and has also prepared the required infrastructure for trading cryptocurrency in its stock exchange.

However, in spite of the CBI’s prohibition from trading cryptocurrencies, Iranians had commenced using cryptocurrency and Bitcoin mining for transactions with the rest of the world before its use was banned by the CBI in the country.

Individuals and businesses in Iran have had access to virtual currency platforms through “Iran-located, internet-based virtual currency exchanges; U.S. or other third country-based virtual currency exchanges; and peer-to-peer (P2P) exchangers,” according to reports.

But the U.S. embargo on a number of cryptocurrency exchange platforms, including Binance and Bittrex, restricted Iran from receiving services, however, no assets belonging to Iranians were blocked. U.S. sanctions have also ensnared Iranian bitcoin traders.

Furthermore, in December, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as Fincen, issued a warning in an advisory to assist U.S. banks and other financial actors such as cryptocurrency exchanges in identifying “potentially illicit transactions related to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Bitcoin.com reported.

Fincen claimed that since 2013 Iran’s use of virtual currency includes at least $3.8 million worth of bitcoin-denominated transactions per year. The organization noted that “while the use of virtual currency in Iran is comparatively small, virtual currency is an emerging payment system that may provide potential avenues for individuals and entities to evade sanctions.”

Fincen believes that P2P cryptocurrency exchangers are a significant means through which Iran can dodge economic sanctions.
Following the Fincen’s announcement, the United States lawmakers introduced a bill (HR 7321) to impose more sanctions on Iranian financial institutions and the development and use of the national digital currency, Cointelegeraph reported.

The act prohibits transactions, financing or other dealings related to an Iranian digital currency, and introduces sanctions on foreign individuals engaged in the sale, supply, holding or transfer of the digital currency.

In the wake of the U.S. restrictions, thus, cryptocurrency trades are limited into Iran’s domestic market and not possible at the international level and Bitcoin is sold at a significant premium relative to the global average price in Iran.

Unfortunately, the basic and premier regulations of using cryptocurrencies have not been ratified in Iran and Iranians are obliged to refer to stock exchange shops abroad to do their crypto-transactions, most of which are American obedient to U.S. regulations and of course, sanctions.

To make using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology legal and official in the country, the Iranian government is drafting a policy framework by the help of the CBI and the Stock Exchange Organization which clarifies all its regulations and policies over cryptocurrency and mining.

Being legislated, it is believed that SWIFT can be replaced by the digital money, i.e. the rial-pegged national currency, and transactions would be done faster and at lower prices.

Due to a lack of required regulations, cargos of equipment for mining cryptocurrency are seized by the customs administration. They are said to be released as soon as the government legalizes cryptocurrency use in the country.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Economy

How to build your entrepreneurial mindset today

MD Staff

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An entrepreneurial mindset is a way of life. Even if you aren’t starting your own business, an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that no problem is insurmountable: you can overcome challenges through perseverance and resilience.

Here are five things you can remember to build an entrepreneurial mindset today. If you’re aged between 18-30, why not start by applying to be a Young Champion of the Earth in 2019? Stay tuned—the competition is opening soon!

Transform problems into opportunities

There are so many clues in everyday life. Is there anything that you experience daily that frustrates you? Perhaps it is the prominence of unsustainable materials in your local shop and restaurants, such as plastic straws or unnecessary food packaging? Often, alternatives to problems do exist, but no one has thought of connecting them in specific circumstances. A good example is supplying restaurants and bars with paper straws. Entrepreneurial mindsets apply a lens which identifies problems not as negative issues but as opportunities to be solved, towards creating value in our economy.

Dare to dream and believe in yourself

If you can dream it and believe it, you are halfway there. How big you can dream is a component of your potential for success. Everyone has ideas—but daring to dream big, and then believing in yourself to apply an entrepreneurial mindset and bring them to reality, takes effort. This year, why not push yourself to think creatively? You could come up with a problem once a week, and each week, come up with one matching solution, for example. The key is to think outside the box, to think of a problem as a potential solution.

Know yourself and discover what you are passionate about

Solving problems, especially those associated with the environment, can be daunting. You will constantly be faced with challenges in your journey to change the world. Some environmental challenges feel so large—like those brought about by climate change. But helping to break down large issues into smaller ones which everyone can take steps to solve, is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Remember that you are capable. Find problems that you are passionate about solving and connect with others passionate about solving them too. This will help you through the tough times to stay motivated.

Go for it and don’t take no for an answer

We all have the foundations of an entrepreneurial mindset. We can all identify problems and think up ideas about how to solve them. Being an entrepreneur pushes you to go out there and take actions to achieve them. Often, this process forces you to think through a specific problem in more detail. It helps you to truly understand pathways towards a solution which others might not have thought about. An idea does not have application in the real world if it is not hammered out in real situations. Part of being an entrepreneur requires following this process, identifying real experiences which can be made better or more efficient, and talking with other people who experience similar challenges to find solutions. Using the resources you have at your disposal will force you to be creative. Keep improving your solution. As you go on, you will eventually gain traction and interest. From there, the possibilities are endless.

Learn, embrace uncertainty and accept failure

Eric Ries from the lean startup says that entrepreneurship is “management under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. Forging your own path to solve a problem that no one has solved before is scary—things change constantly. There will be many obstacles and there will be failure. But an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that failures are opportunities to learn in disguise. An entrepreneurial mindset embraces uncertainty and learning, to leverage the opportunities that emerge from the space between them.

UN Environment

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