Month: January 2016

How to deal with Facebook’s Free Basics

January 28, 2016, 5:40 AM IST in ET Commentary | Edit Page, India | ET

By Samir Saran & Arun Mohan Sukumar

Original link is here

In his monograph, The History of Computing in India (1955-2010), Indian Institute of Science professor V Rajaraman notes the work of the Dandekar Committee on Automation set up by the government in 1969 to assess whether computers would put Indians out of jobs. These were the heady days of socialism in India, and our computing sector was dominated then by one global giant: International Business Machines (IBM).

IBM had a difficult relationship with the Indian government right from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was battling a hostile regulatory environment with capital controls and local manufacturing requirements. But the straw that broke the camel’s back — leading to IBM quitting India for decades — was the Dandekar Committee report.

Egged on by vocal labour unions, the committee recommended sweeping restrictions on the “use of computers in banks, government departments, private companies and insurance organisations”. Parliament was convinced that the introduction of computers would “increase efficiency”, but opted against the “social cost of computerisation”.

Today, we are in the middle of a noisy debate on Free Basics, a platform devised by Facebook for free “access to useful services on mobile phones in markets where internet access may be less affordable”. The debate has been characterised by extreme opinions. Some have argued for a complete ban of the initiative, pointing out that Free Basics will be a walled garden that conditions access to information for millions of Indians. Those across the aisle view this as an ‘elite’ argument, and see Free Basics as a tool to provide affordable access to first-time users, who can then choose to go beyond the initiative’s services.

2016 is not 1969, and Facebook is not IBM. But the public policy questions around Free Basics — affordable access, consumer choice, free speech — will determine India’s internet landscape for years to come. Here are some markers for India’s regulators to evaluate this debate.

Hang Around with the Cable

Consider a ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule: The ‘must-carry’ rule, present in broadcasting rule books in India and the US, imposes an obligation on cable TV networks to carry public or local broadcasters. Its corollary, the ‘must-provide’ rule, requires channels to provide their content to all networks without discrimination. Were the ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule be transposed on to the Free Basics context, it would require Facebook to carry applications without discrimination on its platform.

Conversely, internet applications would be platform-agnostic, providing the same content to Free Basics as they do to other such initiatives. The rule would provide a level playing field for emerging startups and local (language) content providers, who would have the same opportunity to feature on Free Basics as Facebook’s home-grown applications. Qualitative standards can be enforced by the zero-rating platform, but evaluated by the regulator.

Regulatory commitment to free speech: Zero-rated plans like Free Basics can have varying effects on free speech and access to information. Do Indian regulators have the policy tools to correctly evaluate the effects?

Last year, a UN high-level meeting to review the World Summit on Information Society goals concluded that the free flow of information can take place through nine policy interventions, including “open access to data”, “fostering of competition”, “creation of transparent, predictable, independent and non-discriminatory regulatory and legal systems”, “efficient allocation of spectrum” and “infrastructure-sharing models”.

Rather than second-guessing the impact of Free Basics on free speech, the government should put in place regulatory regimes that make this assessment more accurate. These nine areas make for a good start.

Skip the development Kool-Aid: Whatever Free Basics may claim to offer, it is first and foremost an initiative advanced by a for-profit corporation. Corporations should not define India’s development agenda, but their projects should refine it.

In the short term, regulators should assess Free Basics on three simple questions. One, has it limited or facilitated the entry of new data-farming platforms in the market? Two, does it discriminate between internet applications, especially local language content and emerging startups? And three, has it restricted or broadened consumers’ choice on eservices and applications?

In the long term, regulators should also see Free Basics as a test bed for data protection norms in India. If public services and payment portals were to be part of zero-rated platforms, what would happen to sensitive data of Indians stored in such applications? Free Basics is as much about the privacy of data as it is about net neutrality.

The Book’s Face Value

Assess through empirical evidence: Assessing empirical evidence of Free Basics’ impact on the market is not easy. But in the absence of precedent, there is little choice. Regulators could recommend that Facebook deploy Free Basics for a limited window — say, six months — in line with the ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule. At the end of this ‘trial run’, the programme would automatically be rolled back, providing both regulators and researchers with valuable data to assess its impact on connectivity, consumer choice and competition.

The Free Basics debate is a classic sign of the digital economy teething. How we respond will determine its forecast for decades to come. It is also a choice between being a ‘ban’ economy to evolving to one that ‘regulates’.

Saran is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation, and Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative, ORF

 

The Heat: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens

CCTV America, January 18, 2016

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is now officially open for business. How important is the AIIB for China and the global economy?

China’s President, Xi Jinping, has called the opening of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank an historic moment.The formal inauguration ceremony took place in Beijing on Saturday. The new international development bank has 57 member states and is expected to lend billions of dollars over the coming years.

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The Heat was joined by the following guests to discuss:

  • From New York is Victor Gao who is the Director of the China National Association of International Studies.
  • From London is Duncan Innes-Ker who is regional director for Asia at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • In the Washington, D.C. studios for CCTV America is Pieter Bottelier who is Senior Adjunct Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
  • From New Delhi is Samir Saran who is the Senior Fellow and Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation

 

 

The Heat: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens

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The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is now officially open for business. How important is the AIIB for China and the global economy?

China’s President, Xi Jinping, has called the opening of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank an historic moment.

The formal inauguration ceremony took place in Beijing on Saturday. The new international development bank has 57 member states and is expected to lend billions of dollars over the coming years.

CCTV’s Wang Tongxuan reports from Beijing.

 

The Heat was joined by the following guests to discuss:

  • From New York is Victor Gao who is the Director of the China National Association of International Studies.
  • From London is Duncan Innes-Ker who is regional director for Asia at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • In the Washington, D.C. studios for CCTV America is Pieter Bottelier who is Senior Adjunct Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
  • From New Delhi is Samir Saran who is the Senior Fellow and Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation.

Read more: http://www.cctv-america.com/2016/01/18/the-heat-the-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank-officially-opens#ixzz3xfDvQfeU
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‘Outside ideas’ trickle in as think tanks set up base

| TNN | Jan 17, 2016, 04.28 AM IST

Original link is here

New DELHI: With top US think tanks setting up offices in India, the Indian marketplace for ideas is beginning to buzz. This week, Carnegie Endowment announced it would be opening its India office. It will follow Brookings Institution which has been around for a couple of years now. As the nature of Indian governance, policy-making and the international context evolves rapidly, the hope is that these outside “inputs” would help to create more “informed” decisions by government.

These think tanks are coming into India at a time when there is a flowering of Indian research organisations here. The government for long operating with brahminical inscrutability, is more welcoming of ideas, inputs and research from outside.

C Raja Mohan, founder-director of Carnegie’s India office said he envisages a triad of sectors which will benefit from the think tank – “foreign policy and security, politics of India’s economic reforms and the rapidly developing technology policymaking space.” Brookings and Carnegie, voted the top think tanks in the world, have extensive experience in producing policy inputs for the US government.

Indian think tanks too are evolving rapidly. The best known, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Centre for Policy Research (CPR) will inundate your inbox, and have increased their government footprint in recent years. Their playing fields mostly remain in the realm of foreign and security policy with a clutch of former diplomats and military officers taking the lead in the ideas and opinions bazaar, relying on their long engagement with government.

There are also a growing number of organisations working closely with the government in its public diplomacy outreach, holding seminars and big think-fests. The MEA-MOD sponsored IDSA and ICWA are the official organisations in this field. But this year, MEA is working with ORF to execute one of its three flagship events – the Raisina Dialogues in spring, and with Mumbai-based Gateway House for the Gateway of India Dialogues on geo-strategic and geo-economic issues respectively.

Samir Saran of ORF said the Raisina Dialogue this year would feature about 100 speakers from 30 countries, but in a few years they hope to scale it up to become a second Shangrila Dialogue (organised by London-based IISS) which prompts defence ministers and experts from round the world to flock to Singapore every summer.

ORF has also got into the pleasurable business of Track 1.5 dialogues with select countries. Saran says they now conduct dialogues with France, Australia, BRICS and now Egypt. The frontrunner in this area is the Ananta Aspen Centre which has been running the longest and possibly most influential dialogues with US, China, Israel and Turkey, Singapore and Bhutan and an India-Japan-US trilateral, which paved the way for the official dialogue that started a few years later.
The government used think tanks extensively during climate change negotiations, where, the space is filled by specialised organizations like CEEW, CSE and TERI. Saran of ORF says “some sectors need outside expertise like outer space, Indian Ocean etc. We are developing our expertise in these areas.”

 How does the government evaluate the inputs from think tanks? The foreign ministry is the biggest consumer of these ideas from ‘outside’. In the last year, foreign secretary S Jaishankar has placed additional responsibility on a virtually defunct Policy Planning division. The ministry has broken new ground by hiring consultants not employed by the government. But in the new atmosphere of the state interacting with think tanks, the experience for government has not been one of unalloyed satisfaction.

“There are some brilliant minds out there,” said an official on condition of anonymity. “But most of the research papers we see are too theoretical or academic in nature. We need them to be consistent and more policy relevant.” Giving examples from the US, he said academics like Ashley Tellis provide detailed policy inputs to the US government. “We need more of those. For this, we need research organisations to talk to government much more.” Researchers say government officials are very hard to access, and this limits their sources.

On the brighter side, foreign and security policies have many voices in the marketplace today. It’s trade, commerce etc that have very few outside think tanks providing inputs. The government has its own – ICRIER, NIPFP and Institute of Economic Growth, but in the private space there are few of the number-crunchers that governments could use.

Raja Mohan says partly this is because governments have been unusually welcoming of outside economic thinking and economists within government. From P C Mahalanobis to Raghuram Rajan, India has been very accommodating of different economic brains. However, countries like South Korea show much more is possible – their economic and trade think tanks provide crucial inputs to their trade negotiators which may explain why Korea is more willing to engage the world on trade issues, unlike India.

Forget Odd and Even, Delhi Needs a Total Disruption of its Transport Model

by Samir Saran and Prashant Kumar, January 5, 2016, The Wire

Original link is here 

The present attempt to reduce the number of cars on the road is well-intentioned but misguided in the long-run unless there is the political will to adopt a wider set of restrictions

Delhi Traffic Police issue a ticket to a motorist on the Delhi Gurgaon expressway for violating the Odd- Even scheme on Monday. Credit: PTI

The Aam Aadmi Party government’s odd/even formula to manage Delhi’s traffic and curb pollution has been met with extreme opinions and impulsive reactions. Some have applauded Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s attempt to tackle these two seemingly intractable problems, while others, mostly those inconvenienced by the regulation, or by his style of politics, have been quick to criticise the plan.

The question, however, is not whether the odd/even formula will be complied with fully or will be spectacularly successful. Similar strategies have failed in other mega cities and have had modest success in some. More crucial is whether this new rule can serve as a catalyst for disrupting what has become the ‘’Delhi transport normal”.

What is the Delhi “normal”? Simply put, it is an archaic 20th century notion of urban transportation being played out in the 21st century. Vehicle ownership has become associated with class, wealth and prestige in Delhi. The appearance of status is more important than functionality, efficiency and the environment. Ironically, Delhi’s car obsession is actually far removed from the reality of those cities it is trying to emulate. Can the new rule change this paradigm?

The odd/even formula’s attempt to reduce the number of cars on the road is well-intentioned but misguided in the long-run unless there is the political will to adopt a wider set of restrictions. As in Beijing, the rule may result in car owners simply buying more cars to circumvent it. Rather than trying to target the number of cars on the road, then, the government would be wise to target the time vehicles spend on the road. Stagnant traffic has a greater causal relationship with environmental degradation and economic inefficiency than freely moving larger numbers. Can this be achieved under this new regime? May be not.

The odd/even rule’s other objective of improving air quality in the city may not be realistic either. In a recent study, it was shown that only 9% of Delhi’s bad air quality and environmental deterioration was caused by private vehicles. Given that two wheelers and certain commercial vehicles – that form the majority of automobiles on the road – have been exempted, the rule cannot be expected to improve air quality dramatically. A slight decrease in pollution levels has been noted since January 1 (data points are too small to draw any conclusions), but for the government to meet its own environmental goals, it will gradually have to bring other vehicles into the ambit of the odd/even formula. Will it have the stomach to do that?

What is clear is that to meet these ambitious goals, the odd/even rule is not enough. If Delhi traffic is to be managed, both regulatory and behavioural changes are required.

A question of disincentives, and social justice

First, the ruling must be supplemented by other initiatives. Car ownership has to be disincentivised. Measures can include car owners paying punitive taxes on each additional car, the imposition of a congestion charge on usage of arterial routes and making ownership of a vehicle difficult.

Global examples of such strategies include additional registration taxes on a second car in the same family; London, where congestion charges are imposed on certain zones to limit heavy traffic; and Singapore, whose Vehicle Quota System (VQS)makes vehicle prices nearly 3-5 times the actual cost. In Singapore, it is in fact more expensive to buy the right to purchase a car, then to buy the car itself. The 41% ad valorem custom duty on all cars does not make it cheaper either. But each of these cities were in the first instance able to create public transport infrastructure. It could be argued that perhaps Delhi is the best suited amongst Indian cities to embark on moving the middle class to public transport.

But for this, besides enacting rules and regulations, a behavioural shift among NCR residents is urgently required. The aim of the city’s government must be to catalyse the preference of the growing middle class towards a “new normal”. This attitudinal change, evident in global cities like New York, London, Singapore, Tokyo and others is rooted on the usage of public transportation rather than private car ownership. It is absolutely respectable for a CEO to use the subway or an office worker to ride the bus; and carpooling is in fact encouraged, with lanes of roads dedicated to those who carpool.

Another behaviour change that must be favourably considered is to dispel the notion that people must work in offices. In an age so intertwined with technology, it is unimaginable that physical presence in offices is still a requirement. To reduce the number of cars, this notion must be challenged and provisions to facilitate telecommuting, especially for non-essential personnel, by offering broadband charges as part of an employee’s income, as against a fuel allowance or conveyance costs, must become an attractive option.

Finally, Delhi must realise the social injustice embedded within the phenomenon of car ownership. Each car occupies real estate in a city that lacks space. Car owners are effectively squatters, occupying high value land – which they don’t own and which they don’t pay for – to park their vehicles, to ride across the city, to conduct personal and official engagements. This same land is denied to countless others in their pursuit of a basic livelihood. Hawkers and vendors are often turned away from setting up stalls in the pursuit of ample parking space. The right to luxury and leisure has eclipsed the right to a livelihood and if Delhi is to be a global city, it must address this imbalance immediately.

The jury’s out on the Delhi government’s ambitious experiment. But there is no denying the urban landscape will become unmanageable if corrective measures, at a structural, regulatory and behavioural level are not initiated. The “Delhi normal” should reflect a modern, sustainable ideology of urban governance that is rooted in social justice, propelled by new technologies and embraced by new attitudes. Otherwise, this city will remain stuck in the 20th century, no matter what regulation any government adopts.

Samir Saran is Vice President, Observer Research Foundation and Prashant Kumar is Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi