Friday, November 30, 2007

Google bidding for spectrum – not entirely a blessing

Google is really trying hard to get its applications and services into mobile phones. But in the bargain it could be encroaching into every part of our Internet lives from its core business in search, to the Android operating system and applications on phones, to now owning spectrum for mobile telephony and data.

Google announced today that it will apply to participate in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) upcoming auction of wireless spectrum in the 700 megahertz (MHz) band.

As part of the nationally mandated transition to digital television, the 700 MHz spectrum auction -- which begins January 24, 2008 -- will free up spectrum airwaves for more efficient wireless Internet service for consumers. Advocacy by public interest groups and Google earlier this year helped ensure that regardless of which bidders win a key portion of the spectrum up for auction (the so-called "C Block"), they will be required to allow their users to download any software application they want on their mobile device, and to use any mobile devices they would like on that wireless network, Google said. The winner must ensure these rights for consumers if the reserve price of $4.6 billion for the C Block is met at auction, it added.

Google’s moves in the last few months have been aimed to get its services into mobile phones, thus opening up a new advertising revenue stream for the company. Mobile operators however want to control what applications users download, because they are also beginning to see special services as large potential revenue streams, including from advertising. If Google wants to get into the phones of these mobile operators, it can only do so through generous revenue sharing deals with the operators.

The search giant has hence been pushing for opening up the networks, to further its business interests. The 700 MHz spectrum auction was an opportunity for Google and other groups to advocate to the FCC that at least this part of the spectrum should be kept open by bid winners.

Google has been at the same time pushing the open source Android platform for mobile devices, which will again support third-party applications, including Google’s. However the big players like Nokia are not backing this initiative. Having seen the control and commoditization of the PC platform by Intel and Microsoft, they don’t want something similar in the mobile phone market.

It is not clear at this point whether Google really plans to win the auction, or just meet the reserve price for the auction. Also not clear is whether Google, if it bids seriously and wins, will get into actual network operation. If it decides to do so, not only other service providers and mobile phone makers, but also users should be worried. Google will be playing in too many inter-related markets from mobile networks to mobile devices to applications such as search, giving it a lot of opportunity to control.

Related articles:

Google wants an equal chance to get into your mobile phone

Google builds its own virtual machine for Android

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More promises on Palestine, but this time Bush has his reputation on the block

The meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and US President George Bush have yielded the promise of immediate talks on a Palestinian nation between Israel and Palestinian leaders, with a final treaty before the end of next year.

"We meet to lay the foundations for the establishment of a new nation, a democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security," Bush said at a news conference in Annapolis, Md., according to this report in the Los Angeles Times.

Abbas will not be taking a damp squib to his fellow Palestinians back in Palestine. Nor will Hamas be able to say that Abbas was taken down the garden path by Olmert and Bush. The prospects for peace in the Middle East are very real.

Unfortunately the chances that the peace talks may be grounded on one of the myriad disputes surrounding the Middle East issue are still high.

The Annapolis agreement is about deciding to talk and make peace, but did not cover any of the substantive issues that divide Palestinians and Israelis. In this sense it is not a lot different from previous confidence building exercises, mediated by the Americans.

There are the issues of boundaries to be discussed, and fought over both at the negotiating table and on the ground. Will Jerusalem be partitioned or stay with Israel ? What will happen to the Israeli settlements once the new nation is formed ? Will Palestine be allowed to run its own defense ? Will Israel be recognized as a Jewish state or will the Palestinian diaspora demand the right to return ?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Tuesday that he will not back down on his demand that East Jerusalem be named the capital of any future Palestinian state. Nor will he relent on his calls for Israel to dismantle its outposts in the West Bank, he said, according to this report in CNN.

These irksome issues have been pushed under the carpet for the grand-standing this week. For President Bush this is perhaps his last chance as President to prove his statesmanship, and win a Nobel Prize, as some wags put it. For Abbas it could be a matter of his own and Fatah’s survival that the negotiations succeed without him seeing to concede too much. As for the Israelis, they have to start delivering, rather than look for excuses to delay a resolution. There is a lot of hard work, and tough decisions for all three leaders in the days ahead.

Rioting comes easily to those on the margin in France, anywhere

Villiers-le-Bel was not affected by the 2005 riots in France, but shares many features of other banlieues – an unemployment rate of over 20 per cent, poor transport links with the city centre and a population of 27,000, 60 per cent of whom are under 25, according to this report in The Independent of the UK.

The ghetto violence this week in Villiers-le-Bel is spreading, leading to fears of further outbreaks and a possible repeat of the wave of urban violence in 2005. The immediate provocation for the rioting by the people in the ghettos was the death of two teenagers in a collision involving a police car, according to this report from the BBC.

Rioting comes easily to people on the margin, particularly as they have lost all trust in the police, other authorities, and society at large. Many of these people are migrants of North African origin who do not feel assimilated into French society. Some of them believe that the French police may have deliberately killed the boys on the motorcycle. That is incorrect, according to the French authorities, but try telling that to the people in the ghetto who live forever in suspicion and in simmering discontent.

That discontent in the ghettos can only get worse as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a firm lover of all things American, tries to push through economic reforms in the country. Common people do not take kindly to having their privileges removed, more so when it is aimed to help big business. The ghetto-ization of France can hence be expected to continue. Add to that the racial and religious divide, and France’s ghettos are a tinder-box.

There are lessons for other countries from the troubles in France. While votaries of big business and unbridled capitalism push for the dismantling of the welfare state and subsidies, such measures push out into the margin larger numbers of people, who become disempowered, and susceptible to militant ideologies, whether secular or religious.

The experience of most countries proves that unbridled capitalism has only increased inequality, as the benefits have not trickled down. In the US, the middle class finds itself facing extinction, being pushed into the lower classes by high costs of everything including healthcare.

The violence in the ghettos of France are a signal. The people living there may not be articulate enough to put out a policy statement against globalization and unbridled capitalism. They will look instead for refuge in the extreme fringes of their religions, which will both give them an ideology and money to live on.

In Mumbai, where its new super rich are spending millions of Rupees on expensive cars and large houses, the poor don’t have an ideology, but a resentment, that is dangerously high, and waiting to be misused. There are potentially other trouble spots as well.

It is unfashionable, but the hard truth is that the resurgence of capitalist ideology in its unbridled form, has only provided an opportunity for the rich to spend and flaunt their wealth without compunction. Charity, if any, has become a matter of prestige, accompanied by a press release. Once upon a time, the wealthy did not display their wealthy – it was seen to be in bad taste, and yes could invite resentment. Charity was on a quiet note and did not humiliate the receiver. Today display is the raison d’etre for capitalist society.

French suburbs still await change after the 2005 riots, according to this report by Reuters. "High unemployment, underperforming schools, poor relations with the police, inadequate housing and controversial new immigration laws have created a generation of frustrated youths ready to turn to violence at any time", according to the report. This could be as much a description of the state of affairs in the ghettos of France, the slums of India, or the black population in some parts of the US. Economic development has to be inclusive, and neo-right economic policies in many of these countries have not helped.

Related articles:

Thoughts on Che Guevara and the cruelty of capitalism

Free markets do not necessarily mean democracy or quality of life

Monday, November 26, 2007

A mobile Internet bust on the cards ?

Most venture capitalists will tell you that mobile data, accessed by consumers using mobile handsets, is the next big market worldwide. People will use their mobiles to access their mail, do search, social networking, instant messaging, and even blog from their mobile phones. So venture capital has flowed into companies that develop all kinds of mobile applications that will improve the “mobile Internet experience”.

Yahoo’s co-founder David Filo took the hype a little further earlier this year when he said he expected that most people in emerging economies like India would have their first experience of the Internet using mobile phones. The logic, I guess, is that India has been adding between 5 to 7 million new mobile phone users each month, but far fewer new PCs.

But most of the new phones have not been added for Internet connectivity, but plain telephony, and I often wonder how thousands of Indians, whose literacy doesn’t go beyond the ability of dialing a telephone number, are going to find any use for goodies from the Internet.

For those who would like to access the Internet on the move, the better option is a laptop which is not a lot expensive if you need the Internet badly, and you can afford the full-featured PDAs that offer Internet access and other bells and whistles with a mobile phone. Why would an user struggle to enter mail on a PDA when he has the full-blown laptop option, or he can go a cyber café ?

To be sure the mobility is important, but frankly is there any fun in squinting into a miniature browser to read the daily news, or a research report, or a sales report, while at the same time worrying how much that download could be costing you. The moment you decide on mobile Internet, you are talking of costs by the kilobyte, not megabytes, because that is the way the service provider charges you. So browsing for fun on your mobile is an absolute no-no, unless you have a corporate account, and the accounts folks are looking the other way.

I picked up a PDA a few days ago, and I do not use the browser on my mobile to go to my favorite web sites, or download my mail, because it is a lot more expensive than when I am at my laptop, and it is far slower too.

As I would be paying big bucks for a lousy experience, I use the Internet capability on my PDA mainly for emergencies. That certainly doesn’t make me the darling of my service provider. Lots of folks like me can cripple the business plans of those who swear by the mobile Internet.

My friends scoff at me for picking up a PDA and Internet data plan from my mobile provider. Just what is it that I do that requires me to have instant access to my mail or to the Internet ? Can’t it wait say 30 minutes to an hour ? Does it give me a competitive edge ? Or will it only ensure that I lose my eyesight earlier than usual, squinting into the small screen of the mobile phone ?

The data seems to bear my friends out. Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, show that only 13 percent of cell phone users in North America use their phones to surf the Web more than once a month, while 70 percent of computer users view Web sites every day, according to this report in the New York Times.

Data is clearly not a hot application yet on the mobile. The New York Times quotes in the same report an analyst from Rethink Research, who said data would make up only 12 percent of average revenue per user in 2007, far below the expected 50 percent. The 12 percent figure does not include text messaging.

For users of mobile phones to use mobile Internet for one its prices have to hit basement levels, and bandwidth has to improve. That would require service providers to increase their capital outlays even as they have to cut on unit charges. But that is not all. For new users of the Internet there has to be a compelling application on the mobile that will make them embrace the Internet on a mobile phone rather than on the desktop or laptop. For traditional Internet users like me, who use the Internet for work, the Internet on the mobile phone can only be a tool for an emergency.

For now the mobile Internet seems to be the stuff mainly of marketing spiels, and big dreams that may go awry.

Related article:

Will you buy Potatoes on the Net ?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Saudi decision to send Sharif to Pakistan may be part of a bigger agenda

The expected return of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to Pakistan will certainly rattle both President Pervez Musharraf and another former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

The return of Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf overthrew in a 1999 coup to gain power, could bolster the opposition to the President ahead of crucial parliamentary elections on January 8, according to this CNN report.

Unlike Bhutto who returned to Pakistan, hoping for a deal with Musharraf, brokered by the US, Sharif has played his cards well so far by refusing to negotiate with Musharraf. This has diminished Bhutto's credibility with the public, while Sharif’s stock soars.

Bhutto, incidentally, never even whimpered a protest when Nawaz Sharif was deported to Saudi Arabia after his return to Pakistan. It is only when Musharraf, declared emergency in the country, and spurned a deal with Bhutto, that she started talking about opposition unity.

That said, her Pakistan People’s Party is talking of participation in the polls which are being held under emergency regulations which limit civil and political rights, according to this report.

Musharraf meanwhile continues to make a mockery of the institutions in Pakistan. A puppet court, set up in his fashion after emergency was declared, has cleared his election as president even while in army uniform. Musharraf ousted the independent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few days before he was expected to deliver an order on this petition that was likely to go against Musharraf.

Having ensured a veneer of legality to his re-election as President, Musharraf may now well resign from his army post, and control the army by proxy. Holding the election under emergency will help the President’s party win a majority in the Parliament, thus ensuring his control of Parliament, Judiciary, and the army.

Musharraf has done well for himself. Despite spurning US demands that remove the emergency, he continues to get US support, as the US is totally dependent on the Pakistan army to fight terrorists holed in the North West Frontier Province.

But problems will start for Musharraf once Nawaz Sharif reaches Pakistan. Unlike Bhutto, Sharif knows that at this point his best hopes are with the Pakistani people than in deals brokered by the US. The army may not back Musharraf to the hilt if the opposition against his rule snowballs. The army has indicated to the US that it would like to return to the barracks, according to some reports. That could mean the nemesis of Musharraf, and an opportunity for Sharif who also insists that the army should go back the barracks.

The army is not about to give up its control over Pakistani politics. But under pressure from the US to deliver in the war against terror, and facing public disaffection, as well as dissidence in its ranks, it may decide to lie low for a while. Saudi Arabia, which has allowed Sharif to leave despite protests from Musharraf, will also likely favor a restoration of normalcy in Pakistan, if only to reduce the prospects of Islamic fundamentalists gaining ground while the army is busy with Musharraf's political agenda. If one considers the political proximity of the Saudis to the US, the move by Saudi Arabia to let Sharif go to Paksitan clearly has a wink and a nod from the US.

A challenge for the new government in this eventuality will be to curb the army’s role in politics, to avoid more military coups in Pakistan. That resolution may however be harder to achieve.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Hillary Clinton has more frequent-flyer miles than Obama !

So this is what the Presidential debate boils down to – frequent flyer miles on Air Force One !!

Democratic presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, who earlier questioned Barack Obama’s experience in managing the economy, now claims that she has traveled abroad more than Obama, also a Democratic presidential contender, both as the wife of former president Bill Clinton, and as a Senator, according to this report in the Washington Post.

In remarks after an event yesterday in Shenandoah, Iowa, circulated by her campaign as "New HRC Comments on Experience," Clinton was quoted as saying, "I have traveled the world on behalf of our country -- first in the White House with my husband and now as a senator. I've met with countless world leaders and know many of them personally. I went to Beijing in 1995 and stood up to the Chinese government on human rights and women's rights. I have fought for our men and women in uniform to make sure they have the equipment they need in battle and are treated with dignity when they return home", according to the Washington Post.

Hillary Clinton has once again missed the point, sounding more like a yuppie than an aspirant for the top political job in the US. She reminds me of the large number of CEOs who, to prove their importance to the folks back home, pepper their conversation with references to meetings with leaders in China, Vietnam, and India to show just how au courant and well-connected they are.

In contrast, Barack Obama wasn’t name dropping. He said he had lived abroad to prove that he knew how people abroad lived. Living with people abroad can help a politician a lot more than rubbing shoulders over caviar and champagne with political leaders, particularly if they are Chinese leaders totally out of touch with their people.

Perhaps if Clinton had moved from well-choreographed receptions for her husband by foreign heads of state, to actually mixing with the people, they would not be taken by surprise when they find how much Americans are hated in so many countries, and not only in the Muslim world. She would have perhaps realized that Americans’ self perception of invincibility is galling to the rest of the world, and seen by many others as downright patronizing.

Yes, and Hillary Clinton would have understood that the world is now shocked that the run-up to the presidential elections in the US is filled with stories and claims relating to “her days when Bill was President” rather than dealing with substantive issues.

On this front, both Obama and Clinton have preferred to give you the big picture with very little specifics. They haven’t laid out a blueprint for the future of Iraq, or for the US economy, or domestic surveillance, or homeland security, or on foreign policy, except to make some populist noises about universal healthcare.

Instead we hear Obama on his childhood abroad and Clinton’s frequent flyer miles on Air Force One.

Related articles:

Did Hillary Clinton run Bill's administration ?

Alas, yet another Clinton presidency

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Digg, community editing, and vested interests

Digg and many other community edited sites have on the face of it a superb idea. Who better to evaluate and promote content on the Internet than users of that content ? So if you like an article, and you Digg it, and others on Digg like it, its rating goes up and the article is noticed.

Fair enough. Sites like Digg want to be gatekeepers or filters to the large quantity of content on the Internet. But when a variety of vested interests like corporate flacks and self-promoting individuals decide that they can use their individual rights as community editors to promote some news about the companies they represent, or their own articles and blog posts, then you start wondering if community editing is the best option for a site that aims to be a gatekeeper, a filter for quality content.

If one of my posts is submitted to Digg, I am usually grateful if three to four persons Digg the story. What is however galling is to find that a rehash of an uninteresting press release pulled out of Business Wire or PR Newswire has been Dugg 15 to 20 times by an informal cabal of Diggers set up for the sole purpose of Digging an article.

Often folks, who put up a video or article they have written, unabashedly Digg it, and then send the word out to other Diggers to vote for it, with the promise that they will do it for you if you ask. For example: “Please help to digg and share. Shout back if you need and I will help you with pleasure too”.

As a reader. I am not interested in reading content from corporate wires. I can always to go to the sites of these news wires, and pick up the press releases. What I would like is the independent analysis, the real story behind the press release, and not the corporate spiel.

Digg is not the only place where vested interests like corporate flacks hang out. There have been reports about how companies have edited entries in Wikipedia to reflect their point of view.

To be sure, folks like Digg and Wikipedia can request vested interests to honor the objectives of their community edited sites. But it is most unlikely that these interests will back off. Is there some technology that could filter out these activities. If there isn’t folks at Digg, YouTube and other content sharing sites had better develop it, to stay relevant.

Related article:

Businesses crawling all over YouTube, Facebook

Did Hillary Clinton run Bill's administration ?

"I am happy to compare my experience to hers when it comes to the economy," US Senator and Presidential aspirant Barack Obama said according to this report. "My understanding was she wasn't Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. I don't know exactly what experience she's claiming."

Obama was responding to the Hillary Clinton campaign’s repeated line that Obama does not measure up to Hillary Clinton in experience. He is right. Clinton can by rights claim no more experience in running government than her predecessor as first lady, Barbara Bush, and her successor, Laura Bush.

By my understanding of US politics, the wife of the President is required to play the role of a very traditional wife – redecorate the White House, host parties, finalize the guest list and the sitting arrangements, and generally look pretty and presentable.

If Hillary wants to suggest that she got experience running the government while she was First Lady, that appears to confirm what a lot of people say about her – that she was poking her nose in affairs of state while husband Bill chased other affairs.

Unless Hillary Clinton wants to suggest that she enjoyed power and profile beyond normally recommended for a President’s spouse, the only superior experience Hillary Clinton can talk about is knowing better stuff like the layout of the White House, which curtains go well with which carpets, and yes how to keep a check on an irrepressibly errant husband.

Perhaps Clinton is not referring to her years at the White House, but as a Senator from New York. One of Clinton’s best known decisions as Senator was to have signed an authorization of war against Iraq, and again signing the dotted line on Iran. If that is experience, Obama is head and shoulders above Hillary Clinton.

Among the Democratic front-runners Obama is campaigning on an anti-Washington anti-Establishment platform, while Clinton is campaigning as the “insider”, the person from within the Establishment, who got her experience as part of the Establishment.

Neither however shows great leadership, neither “ has a dream”, neither inspires confidence. One for being too naïve to want to overthrow the establishment at one go, the other because she is establishment, not by experience, but by affectation, by her belief that she is pre-destined to occupy the White House.

Unfortunately, at a time when Democrats seem to be best poised to win the White House, the party seems to only throw up a modern-day Don Quixote and a Lady Macbeth.

Monday, November 19, 2007 launches Kindle at $399. End of an era ?

Online retailer has launched an e-book reading device, called Kindle, at US$399, according to this report.

The Kindle has received a number of advance reviews as it uses technology that brings the reader experience as close as possible to reading a print book.

That has decided to throw its weight behind the e-book reader indicates that the company is seeing a significant shift from print books to e-books, at least in developing markets like the US.

A lot of people are however going to hate this transition, including readers. Whatever happened to tucking into bed with a nice book to read, and the familiar rustle of paper, and the smell of ink and paper ? Will print books go the way of the vinyl record, wooden toys, natural Christmas trees ?

Don't know if I will be able to make the transition. Perhaps our children will as they did with MP3 music. It would also be worthwhile investigating the impact of digital books on our informal culture of sharing books. It is not physically possible for me to let a neighbor read an interesting digital book in my catalog, unless he has a digital reader. In case he has a reader, it is also not quite clear whether it is lawful under copyright laws for me to beam my download to his reader.

On the flip side, e-books will push down the cost of publishing, as the cost of printing, paper, and physical distribution will go. Books will become more easily accessible, because they can be easily downloaded. Amazon is offering 90,000 e-books in its catalog, with most priced at US$9.99 each. Not yet basements prices, but e-books are bound to get cheaper as more vendors start getting into this market.

California to sue Mattel, Toys R Us

Finally some action against toy makers who sold toys with lead levels in their paint beyond permissible levels. Until now, most of the toy makers recalled the toxic products, offered a refund, and generally gave the impression that they thought that their duty to the consumer was over. The new measure proposed may however not be enough.

The California attorney general and Los Angeles city attorney said they would file a lawsuit today against Mattel Inc., Toys R Us Inc. and 18 other companies, accusing them of making or selling products that contain "unlawful quantities of lead", according to this report in the Los Angeles Times.

The moves in California comes even as toys made in the US are facing a strong revival, according to this report by AFP.

The suit, to be filed in Alameda County Superior Court under California's Proposition 65 law, would force manufacturers and retailers to adopt procedures for inspecting products to make sure they are safe, according to the report. Barring that, they would be required to warn consumers that the items contained chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects, it added.

The move does not however contain stiff penalties for toy manufacturers many of whom have already cut corners to cut costs, including not monitoring adequately their Chinese operations and their suppliers.

Not unexpectedly, Mattel, the lead defendant in the lawsuit, said it welcomed the attorney general's involvement and added that it would be helpful for the entire toy industry, according to the report in the Los Angeles Times.

If the California proposal moves forward in its current form, toy companies will not be under any threat or penalty to make sure their procedures are fool-proof across their supply chain. There is nothing to prevent them from making promises, and continue their delinquency. The state of California is ill-equipped to monitor the toy makers’ supply chain right up to Chinese suppliers to ensure that procedures are followed.

Passing the buck from manufacturers to retailers will also not help. The retailer does not contribute in contaminating the paint on a product.

Rather than go ahead with this measure, that seems more populist than designed to help users, the states in the US and the federal government should work on a proposal to give the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington more teeth. Currently most of the recalls have been voluntary. The CPSC should be given the funds and the powers to check toys and order their recall.

It is nice to know that Mattel and Co. want to improve their procedures, but users will be happier to know that the end product is being actually checked.

Related article:

Chinese toy recalls - does anybody care ?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Google builds its own virtual machine for Android

Google Inc. is expanding into mobile phone software, and according to some reports, into offering mobile services. Google is taking no chances. It wants its applications including search in everyone's mobile phone, and is averse to cutting revenue sharing deals with handset makers or service providers.

So Google adopts a new spiel that will surely resonate with a lot of consumers - vendor or operator lock-in is bad, and we are all better off if the mobile Internet is free.

But Google's own way about going with its Android platform for mobile phones suggests that Google may want to create lock-ins of its own.

"Instead of using the standards-based Java Micro Edition (JME) as an engine to run Java applications, Google wrote its own virtual machine for Android, calling it Dalvik. There are technical advantages and disadvantages to using Dalvik, developers said, but technology may not have been the driver for Google", according to this report in Computerworld.

Rather than require phone makers to license JME as part of Android, Stefano Mazzocchi said, Google built its own virtual machine. Dalvik converts Java byte codes into Dalvik byte codes, Computerworld quoted Stefano Mazzocchi, a developer and board member at Apache Labs, as saying.

A phone maker could freely use JME under an open-source license if it shares innovations to the software with the community, but most large handset makers are reluctant to do that, Mazzocchi said. Dalvik converts Java byte codes into Dalvik byte codes.

What this means is that Android is not going to make developers any happier. They will still have to write software to JME and Dalvik, and also for the platforms of other vendors who support different foundation software. Dalvik will just be one more option for them.

It may not make consumers happy either. If I have an application running on JME, it may not run on Dalvik. Google is in effect perpetuating consumer lock-ins with its own presumably non-standard implementation of a virtual machine.

In effect Android, although open source, does not then qualify as a truly open standard, but just a fork in the long and frustrating struggle to open-ness on the mobile phone.

Related Articles:

Google wants an equal chance to get into your mobile phone

A Google phone. So why the fuss ?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

House vote on Iraq is naïve, irresponsible

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a war-funding bill with a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq and substantially less funds to conduct the war than President Bush has requested, according to this report from CNN.

To be sure US President George Bush will veto the vote, as threatened. The vote which went mainly along party lines cites December 15 next year as the date for US combat troops to be out of Iraq.

The Democrats have once again acted naïve and irresponsible. America has to know that it just can’t go and shake up the institutions of a country, including its army, impose new ones of its own, and then say, “ Nice knowing you guys. Try and manage”.

The war was ill-conceived from the start, but the US cannot pull out from Iraq just because things didn’t turn out to the advantage of Americans.

There is a civil war going on in Iraq, with Sunnis and Shias battling each other, and with the prospect of the Kurds trying to find their own independent solution to the problem. If Americans pull out prematurely, there will be terrible bloodshed in Iraq. This is not the point in time when the US can say, “let us live it to the Iraqis to solve their problems”.

It is the responsibility of the US to now help move the country politically towards a solution, which as some suggest could be a loose federal system where each ethnic and religious group have control over autonomous regions. The US has to also work with the Kurds, Sunnis and Shias to pass in the Iraq Parliament a formula for the management and sharing of oil revenue.

A number of Democrats including Hillary Clinton voted authorizing the war. They now have to live with the consequences of the war, rather than scamper when the going gets hot.

It makes for great political posturing for the Democrats to vote for a withdrawal within a time-line. Their constituents will love it. But the Democrats, including Clinton, have yet to come forward with a proposal for the resolution of the Iraq problem. The Democrats are at this point not conveying to the US, Iraq, and the rest of the world that they have a grip on the Iraq problem, that they have the capacity to think beyond their vote banks.

Related article:
Why the US should stay in Iraq

Benazir Bhutto cozying to Nawaz Sharif in moment of rejection

Former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto said this week she was working to forge a partnership with Nawaz Sharif, the man overthrown as prime minister in a 1999 coup by President Pervez Musharraf. Bhutto also formally demanded that Musharraf step down, suggesting that a rumored deal between her and Musharraf has fallen through.

Benazir Bhutto wanted to play the heroine of Pakistan, when she returned to Pakistan last month. At that point there was no mention of collaboration with the opposition, particularly Nawaz Sharif. Blessed by the Americans, and with a power-sharing deal with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf brokered by the Americans, Bhutto hoped to present the democratic face of Pakistan.

Bhutto went along with Musharraf in keeping Nawaz Sharif, another Pakistan prime minister on the margin. On his return, Sharif had been deported to Saudi Arabia to serve an agreement he is said to have made with the Pakistan government to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years. Musharraf saw Sharif as a threat and so did Bhutto, and the Americans went along with it because Sharif was not willing to do a deal with Musharraf.

A deal between Bhutto and Musharraf suited the Americans – they would use the sophisticated, westernized Bhutto as a mascot to convince the world that the US had not forgotten its agenda of promoting democracy, while Musharraf and the army would continue to control the country and fight the war against terror on behalf of the Americans.

That scenario did not pan out as scripted. Bhutto came back to Pakistan to a tumultuous, if well orchestrated, welcome which however ended in tragedy as terrorists struck. But the message was not lost on Musharraf. Bhutto was popular, and she could easily turn that crowd against him. Musharraf’s other trouble was from Pakistan’s Supreme Court which was to rule on the validity of his re-election as President.

So Musharraf surprised the Americans and Bhutto by declaring an emergency in the country, and revamping the country’s Supreme Court. He now says the Supreme Court, purged of the pugnacious former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, will clear his re-election.

Musharraf right now is no mood to concede to Bhutto’s demands, including an amendment to the consitution, that would give her a third term as prime minister. He does not need to. He has the opposition in jail and the Americans where he wants them. He knows that the Americans will not split with him or the army, as they value him far more than Bhutto as long as there are terrorists hiding in the North West Frontier province.

Bhutto can also ill-afford to do a deal with Musharraf who seems to be unwilling to make any concession to the opposition. Elections will be held in January under martial law, which will ensure that they will not be free or fair. “The emergency is to ensure elections go in an undisturbed manner,” Musharraf told the New York Times. He disagrees with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who has been demanding that he lift the emergency, he added.

Forlorn and friendless, Bhutto has now turned to Nawaz Sharif who has welcomed Benazir Bhutto's call for Pakistan's president to resign and said the opposition should unite against the military ruler. Bhutto, trying to set the agenda for Sharif, has announced her party may boycott the elections if they are held under martial law.

To be sure this is another alliance of convenience, but it will rattle Musharraf to see his two key opponents making common cause. Will that make him more receptive to American proposals when American Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte travels to Pakistan ? Or will it only strengthen his and the army’s resolve to cling to power at all costs ? Over to American diplomacy.

Related articles:

Pakistan needs statesmen not mere politicians
In Pakistan elections under martial law !

Information on WSJ shall be free, says Rupert Murdoch

News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch said yesterday that he intends to make access to The Wall Street Journal's website free, dropping subscription fees in exchange for anticipated ad revenue, according to this report from the Associated Press.

The proposal by the Wall Street Journal follows similar moves by other top newspapers including The New York Times which made its paid content called Times Select free to all online readers.

All these publications seem to have got the message that as readers move online, they are going to be less willing to pay money for reading news, if only because the news choices are so many on the Web. The option for these newspapers is to add more readers by offering content free, and look to advertising to make up for subscription income.

But newspapers like WSJ will have to strike a balance between appealing to a broad audience while retaining their current focused readers. Too much advertising on a site can also put off readers.

Online advertising will also have to progressively replace revenue from print editions, as it is expected that more readers will move online. That and growing competition from non-traditional online media are big challenges for the newspaper industry.

Data available from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) in Arlington, Virginia suggests that advertising in print is on the decline. Spending for print ads in newspapers in the second quarter of this year totaled US$10.5 billion, down 10.2 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to a NAA release in August.

However whatever advertising is moving away from print editions of newspapers is not necessarily going to their online sites.

Advertising expenditures for newspaper Web sites increased by 19.3 percent to US$796 million in the second quarter versus the same period a year ago, according to preliminary estimates from the NAA.

This sounds great in isolation. But the newspapers that saw a decline of about US$1 billion in advertising in the second quarter, witnessed an increase of less than $200 million in advertising from its online properties.

As a result, total advertising expenditures at newspaper companies were $11.3 billion for the second quarter of 2007, an 8.6 percent decrease from the same period a year earlier, according to NAA.

The NAA puts down the reduced advertising revenue for newspapers to cyclical swings in the U.S. economy, as well as structural changes in the businesses of major advertisers, which continue to affect print advertising revenue.

In the long-term, online sites like YouTube, and news and opinion sites, set up by former journalists and also by experts on specific topics, could compete for eyeballs and advertising revenue with traditional newspaper web sites. Some of the new media sites have built strong online reputations and brands that down the line could be as strong as that of online editions of mainline newspapers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Yahoo’s settlement with families of Chinese dissidents may not change its ways in China

Internet company Yahoo Inc. has settled a lawsuit brought by the families of a Chinese dissident and a journalist, who claim they were jailed after the company cooperated with Chinese authorities, according to a report in CNN.

Yahoo's decision to settle comes a week after the company was criticized in Congress, with one congressman accusing the company of being moral pygmies. "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, said at a hearing.

Yahoo and other Internet companies have maintained that to operate in countries like China they have to play by local rules. This stand has however come in for criticism that when it comes to business interests, Internet companies like Yahoo and Google give democratic norms the go by.

In this instance, the Chinese government demanded from Yahoo the name of the account holder who was using a Yahoo account to send out pro-democracy documents, and Yahoo complied.

Tom Lantos called on Internet companies to "resist any attempts by authoritarian regimes to make them complicit in cracking down on free speech, otherwise they simply should not do business in those markets", according to this report by the Associated Press.

In interviews, Yahoo executives have said that their refusal to comply could land their local employees in China in trouble. They add that the technologies for online community and sharing that they offer will in the final analysis promote democracy in countries run by repressive regimes.

There may be some merit to this argument. During the violent repression in Myanmar earlier this year, the Internet has proven to be an useful conduit to the world for people to communicate the atrocities to the rest of the world. Even as Pakistan places curbs on traditional media and television in Pakistan, the Internet has emerged as a key alternative.

Yahoo and other Internet companies have argued that it is not for one company to challenge the system in China. It requires an inter-governmental resolution between the US and Chinese governments.

It is not clear at this point whether the settlement by Yahoo reflects a change in the company’s position on how it operates in China. At this point it seems that the company settled to avoid further embarrassment and scrutiny in the US.

The company may now be in a better position legally in the US after it handed over the management of its Chinese operations to in which Yahoo has a 40 percent stake. It is now more likely to argue that it has no control over in which it holds a minority stake.

Turkey to attack Iraq soon ?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey will attack bases of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq ``soon,'' according to a report by Bloomberg which quoted a senior lawmaker of his ruling Justice and Development Party on condition of anonymity.

Separately CNN reported that an Iraqi Kurdish official said two Turkish military aircrafts crossed into Iraqi border space on Monday and dropped stun grenades on an uninhabited border area in an apparent attempt to locate targets there.

The dispute between Turkey and the PKK promises to be long and violent, unless Turkey seizes the initiative and moves towards meeting some of the political demands of Kurds in Turkey.

Turkey’s leading pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party, called on the Turkish government to grant autonomy to the mainly Kurdish southeast as a solution to the violence that has plagued the impoverished region for more than two decades, according to a report by Reuters.

By dealing with the moderates at home, Turkey will be able to marginalize the extremist PKK, and also prevent the Kurdish problem in its country from becoming a trans-national issue.

An attack by Turkey on PKK positions in Kurdistan will not solve the Kurdish issues but instead exacerbate it. It could provide a rallying point, a trigger for a Kurdish nation cutting across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and bankrolled by oil in the Kurdistan autonomous region of Iraq. In all these countries, there are Kurds, proud, fierce, and with a long tradition. The money from oil in Iraqi Kurdistan has in certain sectors created the confidence that the Kurdish diaspora in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria may be finally united in a nation.

Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria will certainly not cede a Kurdish nation without a fight and a lot of bloodshed. By attacking Iraq, rather than negotiating a settlement at home, Turkey may precipitate a crisis on an issue which is right now only a dream among a few radical Kurds. A Turkish attack may make the sentiment of Kurdish nationhood a mainstream issue.

Related article:
The makings of a Kurdish nation ?

On nuclear deal, India’s communists move from “No” to “Maybe”

India’s communists, who had threatened to scuttle its coalition government with the Congress party over the nuclear deal with the US, is now softening its stance. The Left, which had earlier said that the government should not operationalize the deal, including negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is now saying that the government can go ahead and negotiate with the IAEA, provided it does not finalize an agreement.

Communist Party of India (CPI) General Secretary A B Bardhan told Indian TV channel NDTV that the government could go to the IAEA, the UN's atomic body as long as they don't finalize any agreement, according to this report.

Now why should the Indian government and the IAEA go ahead and negotiate, when according to the Left there can be no deal ?

Clearly what the Left seems to be saying at this point is that in the interest of holding together the coalition government it may eventually go along the whole hog with the Congress on the nuclear deal with the US.

The reasons for the Left’s stance are quite obvious. One, it does not want to bring down the government. Traditionally its fear of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and other rightist parties have made it gloss over the flaws of the Congress party. Secondly, the Left’s opposition to the nuclear deal, and the underlying anti-American sentiment, has also not gone down well in the West. The Left, particularly in West Bengal, has been assiduously cultivating an image of being pro-business and investor friendly. So after the initial knee-jerk anti-American reflex, pragmatism has evidently got the better of the Left.

Even as the Left now finds it politically expedient to go along with the Congress on the nuclear deal, some of the substantial issues it raised against the 123 Agreement remain. These pertain to long-term national interests, and the Left cannot abandon them for its short-term political gains and for US investment in West Bengal.

As pointed out in an earlier blog, the Indo-US nuclear deal was flawed from the start.

I refer to “United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act” of 2006, which in fact forms the legal framework for the proposed 123 agreement, and was was devised to exempt a nuclear cooperation agreement with India from certain requirements of the Atomic Energy of 1954.

The Act does not however entirely protect India’s right to take decisions on its own on its non-civil nuclear program. It states for example that “a determination and any waiver under section 104 shall cease to be effective if the (US) President determines that India has detonated a nuclear explosive device after the date of the enactment of this title”. So if India detonates a device, the 123 Agreement goes up in smoke, and India will have to return nuclear fuel and other technology it obtained under the agreement.

So the 123 Agreement, in effect places limits on India’s ability to pursue a military nuclear program. When deciding to support the Agreement, the government and the communists should hence weigh the benefits for India’s civilian nuclear program against the risks for its military program. There may be no point in arguing that US supplies to India's civil program will free nuclear resources for use in the defense program, if the defense program is itself circumscribed by US rules.

That we take the right call on this becomes all the more important in the wake of instability and unpredictability in Pakistan, which has nuclear bombs, and also China’s own nuclear arsenal.

Related article:

The Indo-US nuclear deal was flawed from the start

Sunday, November 11, 2007

American self-esteem in a flat world

I recall sitting with an American friend at a top-notch restaurant in Bombay (now called Mumbai) in the early 1990s. At a table close to us were some Indian female models. My American male friend boasted that he could pick up one of them anytime. “ They will certainly join me if they know I am an American,” he added very casually.

In Taipei, a couple of years later, a Taiwanese girl was chatting animatedly with an Indian. We were all part of a large multinational group. An American, whose amorous interest in the Taiwanese girl was well known, was overheard from the other end of the table, “What does she see in that guy ? He is only a bloody Indian”.

First world self-perceptions of invincibility are taking hard knocks in Asia and around the world. All the top US companies, including IBM and Intel, had Americans or Europeans in top positions in Asia, and many of them enjoyed a position and lifestyle akin to colonial viceroys of yore.

Today not only are most of the top positions occupied by Asians, but Asians are occupying top positions in the US as well. Now Cisco plans to have 20 percent of its top management in India, most of whom will be hired locally.

Why was the American knocked off from the pedestal. I think it was the boom in the Asian economies, and dollops of national pride in these countries. The resurgence in national pride started in the early 1990s in countries like Malaysia, which admired the American model, but did not see the need to be pliant to Americans.

As local markets grew, it became quite clear to multinational companies that they had to adapt and get more inclusive, appoint local bosses. After a number of abortive joint ventures with American and European companies, Asian companies also saw the virtues of going it alone. In a radical shift in attitudes, that reflected the economic success of Asia, companies in China, India, and rest of Asia started to be wooed by Americans and Europeans for business.

Offshore outsourcing also tore into the American veil of invincibility. The American’s job could be done as well, if not better and more cheaply in Asia. There were brainy guys there too, as was evident from the large number of Indian and Chinese engineers who made it big globally.

Attitudes towards the American and America has also changed to a large measure in Asia. The greenback lost its sheen to local currencies, some of which were only getting stronger. If earlier, educated people from Asia made a beeline to the US for jobs, now there is a queue back as the local economy is generating jobs that are lucrative in the local context. To be sure there are those for whom living in America is still the ultimate dream, but these are getting fewer by the day.

In Pakistan, elections under martial law !

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf today at a press conference showed the US and the rest of the world that in Pakistani politics you can have your cake and eat it too.

Musharraf pledged elections in January, though the elections will be likely held while the state of emergency is still on, according to this report in CNN.

What that means, despite Musharraf’s pledge of having international observers, is that Musharraf and the army will ensure that only the pliant will get elected to the new parliament.

Musharraf and the army already control the Supreme Court and the Election Commission. Elections and parliamentary legitimacy is all he needs to complete this sordid charade.

The US and some European countries have been urging Musharraf to move towards democracy, but Musharraf demonstrated at the press conference on Sunday that he sets the agenda in Pakistan.

As US officials have often admitted, they need Musharraf and the Pakistani army in the war against terror, particularly as key terrorists are believed to be holed out in the country’s North-Western Frontier province.

Musharraf is playing that card against the US and Europe. He is well aware that the US will not try to upset a cozy relationship that it needs with the Pakistani army.

Where does that leave Benazir Bhutto ? Her Western sophistication and British education appeals to the West, but unlike Musharraf she does not control the army. In her craze to come to power, Bhutto will in the event, make some vociferous protests for the galleries, and then perhaps settle for a deal with the generals.

That leaves the small constituency of lawyers as the only consistent opposition to Musharraf and army rule. They are a strong moral force, but cannot for long counter the repression by the police and the army.

As the army battles its own people, the war against terror moves to the back-burner. Musharraf is in no hurry to flush out the terrorists. They are his trump card against US pressure.

The break down of civil society and political institutions may however help the jihadis. As the country’s civil society finds itself more distressed and impotent, the moderates may lose ideological leadership to the jihadis.

Related articles:

US impotent before "buddy" Musharraf"

US support to Pakistan unaffected after martial law

Friday, November 9, 2007

ScanSafe publicity hogs make hay over IndiaTimes malware

An Indian news and entertainment web-site is said to be serving malware to visitors to some sections of its site. Guess what – the PR firm of the security company, that detected the threat, is busy contacting journalists to write about the attack and presumably about the company, ScanSafe. They were even offering interviews with their researchers.

Thanks ScanSafe, but you would be doing everyone a service by contacting the Times of India group instead, and helping them resolve the problem !

Instead your folks are apparently trying to squeeze out mileage in the US media from somebody’s misfortune. All in the name of getting your advisory across to users of in India !!

ScanSafe’s cynical interest in publicity reflects the state of public relations these days in the corporate sector.

A few hours after a call center employee in Pune, India was raped and murdered by the driver of the cab dropping her home, another security company circulated a release informing people that this kind of crime will be avoided if call center companies deploy their technology that monitors staff and taxi activity.

I am sure the technology is worth looking at. But don’t you think it is in bad taste to take advantage of someone’s misfortune to push your product, and that too soon after the murder ?

When I was young, my parents always told me that charity had to be voluntary, and discreet, to respect the dignity of the recipients of the charity. The PR industry has broken that norm too. Most companies follow every little act of charity with a press release and media coverage, sometimes with snaps of the beneficiaries.

For those wanting more information on the malware at IndiaTimes here is a link to ScanSafe’s blog.

The makings of a Kurdish nation ?

Kurds in Iraq already enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy. In Turkey, the Kurds say that autonomy is the best way to solve the problem of Kurdish terrorism. Iran is also fighting a Kurdish secessionist movement. All this seems to point to a separate Kurdistan, carved out of these three countries in a bloody conflict..

Turkey's leading pro-Kurdish party called on the Turkish government on Thursday to grant autonomy to the mainly Kurdish southeast as a solution to the violence that has plagued the impoverished region for more than two decades, according to this report in Reuters.

A Kurdish nation may not be without precedent. New nations sprung up after the breakdown of the former Soviet Union. In Yugoslavia after the Balkan crisis, new nations sprung up there too based on a mix of religion and ethnicity. Kosovo has also been threatening to declare independence from Serbia.

What this means is that throughout the world, the old order is changing, and is changing on the basis of ethnic and religious aspirations.

Some of these groupings will try to be nations in a hurry without the political institutions and the maturity to run countries. They will be unstable and dangerous neighbors. Some of them will be born, not unexpectedly in violence, as majorities in their countries oppose the birth of new nations. The birth of some of these parvenu nations could also be accompanied by ethnic cleansing of new minorities in the new nations.

All in all a bloody outlook ahead. It is avoidable if the majorities in each country show some interest in accommodating their minorities, work on their economic betterment, and try to concede to some of the demands of their minorities. It is also avoidable if some of the big countries like the US and Russia do not play with the ethnic and religious tinderbox for their petty political ends.

Turkey may avoid Kurdish separatism by conceding some of the autonomy the Kurds in Turkey demand, and also invest in the development of this community. Serbia may still be able to hold Kosovo within the country if it offers the Albanians in Kosovo a large degree of autonomy.

In September, Serbia warned the UN of “unforeseeable consequences” that could destabilize the world if the breakaway province of Kosovo declares independence unilaterally later this year.

If we go by history, and a sense of justice, there should be no objection to an ethnic group declaring independence, I wrote in an earlier blog. This stand unfortunately only looks good in a treatise on nationalities, meant for academic discourse alone.

If we put it into practice, we could see a large part of the world “balkanized” because every ethnic group or group with nationalistic aspirations could demand independence regardless of its political and economic viability as an independent country. Many of them will likely emerge in haste and violence, without the institutions in place required to be nations.

This bloody situation can only be avoided if host countries try to accommodate their ethnic minorities.

Related article:

Kosovo dispute highlights the issue of nationalities

Pakistan needs statesmen, not mere politicians

Benazir Bhutto is loving every minute of this, I am sure. The decision by the Pakistan government to restrain her from addressing a rally on Friday by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) unwittingly or wittingly makes her the uncrowned leader of the opposition in Pakistan.

Pakistan placed former premier Bhutto under house arrest on Friday, blocking her from a planned rally to protest President Pervez Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency, according to this report by AFP.

The former prime minister who was willing to do a deal with Musharraf, even as other opposition leaders were against it, has very cynically positioned herself as the key political opposition to Musharraf. Her histrionics, devotedly covered by sections of the Western media, will certainly ensure that she now has a strong chance of being a winner if elections are called as promised in February 15.

With Nawaz Sharif in exile in Saudi Arabia, and other opposition leaders in jail or in hiding, this could have been a script written by Bhutto herself.

But will it help Pakistan get back to democracy and build sound democratic institutions? Or in the months ahead will Bhutto try to again do a deal with Musharraf, at the instance of the US who wants him at the helm at all costs.

For Bhutto the opportunity is now – to show that she is a stateswoman, and not a mere politician. Will she demand that the army pull back to the barracks after the February election ? Will she re-organize the army to ensure that it is more accountable to the people’s representatives ?

Bhutto has in the past complained that decisions about the country’s nuclear program were taken without her knowledge, and her government was in fact ousted after she came to know of it, and objected to it.

Will Bhutto change the system, or just move into it, and become part of it, if she is elected. This is a question many Pakistanis will ask of Bhutto and other contenders for the Prime Minister post. Will you change the system, that has made the military so powerful, or will you be comfortable once you have the top job as Prime Minister ?

Change may not come by an election alone. For a country that has seen the military and intelligence agencies control the government directly or indirectly for most of its history, change will only come if the army is made subservient to democratically elected leaders.

Related article:
US support to Pakistan unaffected after martial law

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy’s American love fest could backfire

“But my generation did not love America only because she had defended freedom. We also loved her because for us, she embodied what was most audacious about the human adventure; for us, she embodied the spirit of conquest. We loved America because for us, America was a new frontier that was continuously pushed back--a constantly renewed challenge to the inventiveness of the human spirit.”

That was Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s President buttering up to the United States during a speech to Congress on Wednesday.

Sarkozy, who incidentally comes from a country with a rich tradition in art, literature, and music, says the imaginations of his generation “were fueled by the winning of the West and Hollywood. By Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Hemingway. By John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth. And by Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, fulfilling mankind's oldest dream”.

Goodbye Jean Paul Satre, Albert Camus, Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Bizet, Emile Zola and others that have long made France a center, nay a beacon of culture, politics, and ideology. Farewell to France’s own perception of how politics and the economy should be run.

Enter the new France, a pastiche of all things American, of George Bush and Donald Duck, of Britney Spears and Madonna.

To this sad pass has come such a proud nation that once tenaciously clung to its culture, language, and heritage.

Sarkozy seems to have done a perfect job wheedling his way into replacing former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as America’s poodle.

In his speech, he agreed with the US that Iran with nuclear weapons was unacceptable, he reiterated his commitment to French continued engagement in Afghanistan. He gave the US a bonus: he did not refer to the country’s embarrassing debacle in Iraq. That was one issue at least on which Sarkozy could have held his pride, and told America, “we told you so, but you didn’t listen”. He could have used that opportunity to outline a broader view of how the world should move, rather than toeing George Bush’s now jaded and US-centric perception of the world

The members of the US Congress gave him a standing ovation, not once but many times. At a media briefing US President George Bush was seen escorting Sarkozy away with his arm patronizingly around his shoulders.

But Sarkozy carried nothing substantive home, except memories of a transcontinental love affair.

French reaction was fast and bitter. "You cannot be content with looking into each other's eyes and declaring you love one another. You must transform that into a vision and action for the world," former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a Sarkozy rival, told RTL radio, according to this report by Reuters.

The smitten President also returns home to meet continuing opposition to his bid to Americanize the French economy. Two powerful Paris public transport unions said on Thursday they would join a wider rail strike from the evening of November 13, after rejecting a government offer on reforming their pensions, according to Reuters.

Whoever said the world loves a lover was evidently not French.

Chinese toy recalls - does anybody care ?

U.S. safety officials have voluntarily recalled about 4.2 million Chinese-made Aqua Dots toys contaminated with a powerful "date rape" drug that has caused some children to vomit and lose consciousness upon ingesting the contents, according to this report by CNN.

The current recall of toys announced by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the latest of many recalls of toys made in China, including by leading brands Mattel Inc. and RC2 Corp. In most of these cases the toys had lead in their paint that was far beyond permissible levels.

As holiday buying gets closer, it will appear that more toys made in China will get into markets around the world. However both big brand toy makers and local Chinese makers seem to be taking the consumer for granted.

The callous pattern is that CPSC issues a recall advisory, and it is back to business-as-usual it seems for the companies that sold the toys. The toy makers are playing with children's lives, and what is required from them is not recalls and refunds, but proactive action that does not expose children to these toxic toys.

The Aqua Dots toys toy contains a chemical that, once metabolized, converts into the toxic "date rape" drug GHB (gamma-hydroxy butyrate), accroding to CSPC."Children who swallow the beads can become comatose, develop respiratory depression or have seizures," a CPSC statement warned.

Unfortunately there aren't a lot of toys these days that aren't made in China. The rush to China by multinational toy makers and the emergence of Chinese toy makers have almost wiped out most toy makers outside China. Most of them remain as boutique toy makers, selling expensive toys. Handing over the market to China has meant that we now have fewer sources of safe toys.

There is case for banning toys made in China until the country's manufacturers recognize their responsibilities. There is also a case for boycotting some of the big brands until they can show us that they are proactively preventing harmful toys. We have to cease being supine consumers and assert our rights both as consumers and citizens.

Related articles:

Mattel toy recall: a case for banning imports of Chinese toys ?
More recalls of China made toys

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

YouTube sued in India for copyright infringement

Google Inc. and many Internet companies hold that they cannot be held liable for whatever happens on their video sharing and social networking sites. Telephone companies aren't held liable if people plan a murder over the telephone, so why should Internet companies, according to Google.

An Indian company, the makers of the T-Series music and videos, thinks otherwise. It has sued Google and YouTube for allegedly infringing its copyrights, as a lot of its copyrighted content is claimed to be available without permission on YouTube. A court in Delhi has passed an interim restraining order on Google and YouTube which would require YouTube to pull down all content on their site that could be in infringement of T-Series' copyrights, according to this report in InfoWorld.

Google has been pushing for an amendment to section 79 of the Indian Information Technology Act 2000 that will remove the liability of network service providers for content posted by users. The current version of section 79 requires that the network service provider prove that the offense or contravention was committed without their knowledge or that they had exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of such offense or contravention.

Interestingly, T-Series seems to have filed the case under the Indian Copyright Act, and not under the Information Technology Act, according to this blog. The lawyer for T-Series is quoted by Infoworld as saying that YouTube is not a neutral intermediary but a web site that makes money from clicks on advertising on its site.

The dispute between Internet sharing sites and media companies is unlikely to get resolved anytime soon. There have however been moves by companies like NBC Universal and Walt Disney and other media companies who announced last month a set of guidelines for user-generated content (UGC) services, without infringing copyrights. Among the measures proposed is the implementation of filtering technology with the goal to eliminate infringing content on UGC services, including blocking infringing uploads before they are made available to the public. Google was not among these companies, though MySpace was part of the annoucement.

Google seems to be worried that too much control may make sharing and social networking sites less popular. The issue is about how much of control. The media companies are willing to allow fair use of copyrighted content, which is what is required for the flowering of creativity around orginal content. Lowering controls beyond that would be a license for illicit use of copyrighted content.

Just as media companies want to push for copyright enforcement on networking and sharing sites, there is a section of government and society in India that is pushing for greater control over what gets posted on these sites. The offer by Google and other Internet companies to pull down objectionable material post-facto is not seen as good enough. If there can be filters to prevent uploading of copyrighted material, why can't tech savvy companies come up with filters for pornography for example. Google should listen rather than play the same old tune of intermediary neutrality.

Related article:

Google says don’t shoot the messenger

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

In Pakistan, activist judge could prove to be Musharraf’s undoing

In a telephone address to lawyers in Pakistan’s capital, the ousted chief justice of the Supreme Court urged the lawyers today to continue to defy the state of emergency imposed by the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf., according to a report in the New York Times.

The Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, was ousted on Saturday after emergency was declared in Pakistan. He was earlier ousted by Musharraf who had him replaced by another judge. But following protests from lawyers and a Supreme Court decision in his favor, he was reinstated after four months.

“The lawyers should convey my message to the people to rise up and restore the constitution," Chaudhry said in his telephone interview, according to the New York Times.

This suggests that the former Chief Justice is willing to play a larger role than as a judge handing out orders and judgments under the constitution. He is willing to involve and lead the people in defending the constitution, and demanding its restoration.

Movements like that of the lawyers, and under the leadership of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, are likely to help hold the moderate center in Pakistan, and prevent fundamentalists from taking advantage of Musharraf’s self-serving declaration of emergency.

Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry cannot also be dismissed as a political rabble rouser. As the former Chief Justice he speaks for the constitution and the democratic institutions it was required to defend. Also unlike the politicians, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry does not have a track record of working with the Pakistani military when it suited him.

Rather than pursue their own agendas, the politicians like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif should rally behind him. He is the leader for the moment – unpartisan, and strongly supportive of the constitution and democratic institutions. He alone can lead a bi-partisan movement that can bring together the whole of Pakistan society – before the Islamic fundamentalists inside and outside the military and intelligence agencies can take control.

Related articles:

US impotent before “buddy” Musharraf

US support to Pakistan unaffected after martial law

Pakistan developments a threat to India

Online social networking as theater

Nothing serious actually gets discussed on social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut. The way these sites have shaped out, nay their new raison d’être, is about making members look good to their friends and peers on the site. It is less about spontaneity and more about theatre.

Sometimes what people want to show off about on social networking sites actually reflect a breakdown in social values. The Daily Mail reports that “drunkenly dancing on tables or collapsing in the street used to be a source of acute embarrassment for young women the morning after the night before. Today, they are more likely to boast about it - to the world, with pictures - on social networking sites”

The sad part of this all is that substituting Internet communities for real-life communities, drinking till you are silly, and other mad-cap behavior could in fact be reflections of a far more serious problem in society.

They could be reflecting the loneliness people feel today as traditional communities and real communication break down. People may be trying to replace real communities and long-term bonds with ephemeral communities that present less risks of failure, but at the same time a smaller chance of real strong bonds.

More than 150,000 girls have signed up to Facebook's online forum "30 Reasons Girls Should Call It A Night", where they openly discuss the various states of inebriation - and undress - they have found themselves in, according to the report in the Daily Mail.

Not only do girls discuss their inebriation, but have unabashedly put up their snaps in various states of drunkenness and undress on the forum.

If social networking in the physical world is about the sharing of common themes and ideas, bouncing out of new and unusual ideas, and generally trying to build community, social networking is surely and quickly emerging more as a well-choreographed spectacle, than as a genuine and spontaneous forum for social interaction. See more on this in my earlier blog titled “Orkut as theatre”.

Related article:

Orkut as theatre

Monday, November 5, 2007

Catholic Church says conversions can never be forcible

India’s Hindus have for a long time objected to the conversion of some of their community to Christianity. In recent years Hindu extremists have objected more forcefully by attacking churches and clerics.

Religious belief can never be the result of forceful conversion, but must come through education, dialogue and mutual respect, the Vatican said Monday in a message for the Hindu Diwali holiday, according to this report by the Associated Press (AP).

The message attributed to the head of the Vatican's office for inter-religious dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, evidently tries to be reconciliatory to the Hindus who are the majority in India.

But it fails to address the concern of many Hindus, including moderates. The moderates are concerned that the Church uses charity funds to gently persuade Hindus and other communities to convert to Christianity. A number of Christian, including Catholic charities, are known to openly proselytize among the poor, using food and clothing as an incentive. Converts by this method are known as “rice Christians”.

There are also a number of people who convert to Christianity to take advantage of the abundant funds from foreign donors available to Christian charities. Often these charities pay for the education abroad of children, which would be generally out of the pale of most Hindus in India.

A commitment by the Vatican and other churches not to link charity with conversions would go a long way towards building amity with the Hindus in India, and in fact non-Christian communities in all countries.

In the past a lot of the conversions to Christianity in Asia piggybacked on Christian colonial powers. Take for example the forced conversions in Goa under Portuguese colonial rule. The Catholic Church and other churches have to now convince other religions that conversions are not piggybacking on first-world wealth and charity.

Google wants an equal chance to get into your mobile phone

Google Inc., T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm, Motorola and others have collaborated on the development of Android, which is open source software for mobile devices, including an operating system, middleware and key mobile applications.

As reported in various newspapers and in this blog, the Google Phone is not a device introduced by Google, but a software stack for mobile phones.

The companies have teamed under an alliance called the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), a multinational alliance of technology and mobile industry leaders.

The key objective of Android is summed in this paragraph on the web site of the alliance: “Android does not differentiate between the phone's core applications and third-party applications. They can all be built to have equal access to a phone's capabilities providing users with a broad spectrum of applications and services.”

Google’s bid to proliferate a standard platform, even an open-source platform, will likely be resisted by many mobile phone vendors including Nokia. An open source platform would deprive Nokia of its differentiation. Open source tends to drive commoditization, because every new software feature is available to anyone else to include in their phones.

In its bid to expand its presence beyond the desktop, Google has been pushing for mobile phone vendors and service providers to open up their platforms and services to third-party applications. That would enable users to download Google applications and services on to their phones without having to worry about software compatibility issues, or whether their network operator supports the application.

Currently Google, as also other application and services vendors have to negotiate with mobile phone vendors and network operators to support their applications or services. In such a deal Google would probably have to share its key revenue stream – advertising – with service providers.

The adoption of an open platform would help Google as also users who would have the freedom to choose applications for their device. These days if you buy a phone from Nokia Corp. or Sony Ericsson, or any other vendor, before you download an application, you have to verify that the software is compatible with and supported by your specific mobile phone model. You may also have to check with mobile phone service providers to find out if they support the application.

Google’s move to promote a standard platform is however likely to be resisted by mobile phone makers and network operators, as it will be seen by many as a move by Google to extend its dominance to beyond the desktop, and beyond search. The question foremost on vendors’ minds will be: what is Google doing with operating system and middleware for the mobile phone ? Isn’t that the same thing that Microsoft has been trying with its own software ?

As an user, I too would be a little worried, if my favorite search provider, news aggregator, online productivity applications provider, and blog hosting provider were to also try to get into operating system software. Google is beyond doubt the key player in the Open Handset Alliance. To assuage the doubts of handset vendors and those of users, the company has to make a clear statement of its own objectives.

Apart from winning over big handset vendors like Nokia, Google and Open Handset Alliance will also have to win over large service providers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless. These two companies together control over 50 percent of the US market, and have long been used to deciding what goes into phones on their network. Control has provided them rich content and services revenue streams. They may not take too kindly to having Google and the Open Handset Alliance telling them what to do on their networks.

Related articles:

A Google phone. So why the fuss ?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Pakistan developments a threat to India

India has responded with diplomatic propriety to the imposition of emergency on Saturday in Pakistan. Terming as "unfortunate" the developments in Pakistan where emergency has been declared, Defense Minister, A K Antony, on Sunday said a stable government in Islamabad was good for that country as well as for India, according to this report in The Hindu newspaper.

Indian officials are however in private worried about the impact of the emergency on the Talibanization of Pakistan, and the overall growth of fundamentalism in that country.

The imposition of emergency rule, and the marginalization of both political parties and institutions like the judiciary, leaves Pakistan in a political vacuum that the fundamentalists will try to fill.

The fundamentalist elements, besides targeting Afghanistan, will also target India, stepping up its demand for an independent Kashmir. Kashmir is now partially under Pakistani control with the rest of the territory under Indian control.

The Indian government has maintained in the past that terrorist attacks in India were often perpetrated by Pakistanis with support from intelligence agencies and the military in Pakistan. The intelligence agencies were also accused of running training camps for separatists.

The fundamentalists in Pakistan are likely to attempt to move beyond the Kashmiri separatist agenda to a broader fundamentalist agenda in India. India has a large Muslim population who the fundamentalists in Pakistan would want to bring to their fold.

The other danger is that fundamentalists have already infiltrated the army and the intelligence agencies in Pakistan. While Musharraf’s government continues to receive US aid, positioning itself as an ally in the “war against terror”, the army and the intelligence agencies may subvert his agenda, and give the terrorists a wink and a nod both for their activities in North West Frontier province, and in Kashmir and the rest of India.

In an interview to ABC News, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto said: “There's a very slim line between what are called Musharraf's people and the terrorists who tried to kill me in Karachi”. Here is a link to the interview.

India’s options are few. As in the past its view will not count in international diplomacy as long as the US is intent on backing Musharraf. Pakistan was viewed by the US as an ally against terror, even though India had frequently expressed concerns about Pakistan stoking cross-border terrorism.

What Pakistan does in Kashmir does not concern the US a lot, as it is not seen as an important theatre in its war against terror. The US is concerned about the presence of Al Qaeda in the North West Frontier province, and there Musharraf holds the cards.

Related articles:
US support to Pakistan unaffected after martial law
US impotent before “buddy” Musharraf

A bully in an unipolar world

Oh Phaedrus, you do remember when you were among friends in a tavern about 15 years ago, when news filtered through about the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the rest exulted, it plunged you into depression.

An unipolar world would throw insurmountable problems as the only remaining super power set about being the law-maker for the world, you lamented.

The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) had by its own insane logic kept under check to an extent both major wars and adventurism by either the US or the Soviet Union. I must confess it didn’t stop the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan though, but the mujahideen with US support did put up a good fight, that eventually weakened the Soviet Union.

In the post cold war era, the world is less of a safe place. Terrorists abound. The cold logic is that when you can’t face up to the big bully, you either befriend him, become his lackey, or you attack the bully and his friends from behind, from a place you can’t be caught, by a new set of rules.

The bully will demand that you fight by his rules, by which he will quash you. But you live to fight another day.

Oh Phaedrus, you will complain that this leads to loss of innocent lives as happened in the infamous 9/11, and I do agree with you entirely. But the way out of this vicious and violent cycle is for the bully to understand that he is being a nuisance to people at large and to himself.

Your heart wept, you lost sleep as you saw the horrific deaths of innocent people roll out before your eyes on the TV. Every person dead was a heart-rending story – a child losing a father, or mother or brother, a family lose its bread winner. The terrorists are cowards you screamed, tears in your eyes.

Phaedrus, the cowards are also the mighty that misuse power, throw their weight around, hypocritically pursue their own self interest. A democratic Iraq is in our interest, they say. In the same breath they support the General in Pakistan, and refuse to cooperate with the democratically elected Hamas in Palestine.

Phaedrus, guess the rich and powerful among nations get to set and change the rules to their whim.

You did eventually come around to the idea that sometimes terrorism is a reaction, albeit sick, to repression, political or otherwise.

All countries have their freedom fighters who were in a sense terrorists, and today they are in the pantheon of their nations. Now a new generation, more dangerously, terrorize in the misguided belief that they are serving their god.

Caught between these interests are unfortunately innocent lives, including you and me.

US support to Pakistan unaffected after martial law

US Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, said the emergency declaration in Pakistan "does not impact our military support of Pakistan" or its efforts in the war on terror, according to a report from the Associated Press.

As reported earlier in this blog, the US for all its rhetoric about support for democracy worldwide, will have no choice but to go along with President Pervez Musharraf, hoping to get the Pakistan army to support a US bid to flush out Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists from the country’s North-West Frontier province.

That was Musharraf’s calculation when he went ahead and declared martial law in Pakistan despite earlier protests from the US. That will also perhaps ensure that Musharraf’s army will put hunting the terrorists as the last item on his army’s agenda.

The terrorists are a prize catch that Musharraf can cynically dangle before the US every time the Americans start interfering in his affairs at home.

It is a big mistake for the US to support Musharraf’s government. It will give a boost to anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. It will also make larger sections of Pakistan society potential recruits to Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism.

As for the Pakistanis, in the past Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, thought the US would help her bring back democracy and her back to power in Pakistan. In the interests of the country, Bhutto has to for a while put on hold her personal ambitions, and work for a broad coalition with other democratic movements in Pakistan, including that of another former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Pakistani politicians have to put their heads together to save civil society and democracy in Pakistan. Don’t expect the US to do it for you. They have been very comfortable dealing with dictators in the past in Pakistan, Iran, and Cuba, if their own interests are seen as being served.

Related articles:
US impotent before “buddy” Musharraf

Saturday, November 3, 2007

US impotent before “buddy” Musharraf

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has gone ahead and declared a state of emergency on Saturday in Pakistan. Troops have surrounded the country’s Supreme Court building and physically removed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry who was earlier in the day expelled from the job. The other justices of the court are expected to be asked to take a new oath in favor of the President.

The proclamation of emergency rule, which according to some analysts is closer to martial law with the army in full control, should come as an embarrassment to the US which views Pakistan as a close ally in its war against terror.

The declaration also came in direct defiance of warnings by top American officials, reports the New York Times. The senior American military commander in the Middle East, Admiral William J. Fallon, told General Musharraf and his top generals in a meeting in Islamabad on Friday that emergency rule would jeopardize the extensive American financial support for the Pakistani military, according to the report

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has personally intervened twice in the past four months to try to keep General Musharraf from imposing emergency rule, including telephoning him at 2 a.m. Pakistani time in August. Today, while traveling to Turkey for an Iraq security conference, she reinforced the message, saying, “I think it would be quite obvious that the United States wouldn’t be supportive of extra-constitutional means," New York Times reports.

Don’t expect Musharraf however to reverse martial law under US pressure. For one, US pressure matters little to the President who has the support of the Pakistani army which sees Musharraf as the best way to perpetuate its control. Apart from some few violent protests, the country will settle down to another long spell of martial law.

Which should suit the US well. Although it advocates democracy in its demagoguery, and will likely issue protests, as required by protocol, at the new turn of events in Pakistan, don’t expect US sanctions on Pakistan or its military.

The US at this point needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the US, and Musharraf factored that into his calculations. The epicenter of the war against terror is Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, where Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding. So the military in Pakistan will continue to demand more arms from the US and will get them, even if some of those arms are turned against the Pakistani people.

The US has also in the past been quite comfortable dealing with Pakistani military dictators, much to the chagrin of politicians in democratic India who believed that the two democracies should be naturally allied.

This time after a few protests for the galleries, Musharraf and the US will be back to business soon.

That however will be a big mistake for the US to make. The alienation of civil society in Pakistan under Musharraf’s rule, which is likely to get exacerbated under martial law, will only play into the hands of the Muslim fundamentalists who will now start actively recruiting among disaffected Pakistani youth. Martial law in Pakistan will only accelerate the “Talibanization” of Pakistan’s civil society.

At that point, Musharraf may once again need the US very badly. Like the Shah of Iran he will need some place to escape to. It is unfortunate that the US never learns from its past mistakes.