Consent by Default

Trello, the project management app, updated its terms of service recently. This is the notification it used to convey the change to its users:

We’ve replaced the Trello Terms of Service with the Atlassian Cloud Terms of Service. Learn more about the changes here.

By clicking “I Agree” or otherwise continuing to use Trello, you agree to these new terms. If you don’t want to agree to the new terms, you may delete your Trello account. [emphasis supplied]

The highlighted portion assumes consent by default. This is an admittedly loose usage of the term consent because it is questionable if what is being assumed here can even be called consent. For example, would such language be valid if the draft Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018 were to be in effect in its current form? The Bill says that for processing of personal data based on consent to be valid, the consent must have five features. It must be free, informed, specific, clear, and capable of being withdrawn. Are these features present in the language used? The answer is no.

Would this be covered under any of the other grounds for processing data that do not require consent under Chapter III of the Bill? The answer is no again. Besides, a company’s claim of relying on a different ground for processing will be undermined by the fact that they are also providing users with the option of providing their consent. A larger question that needs to be asked here is how often should an individual be required to provide her consent after she is already subscribed to a product or service.

For now, the clumsy framing of the highlighted language might land a company using it in a tricky situation when the law comes into effect. This only goes to show that the data protection landscape is still hazy and much care and foresight will be required when drafting the legalese to govern it.

Of Referenda and Loaded Questions

Reading this excellent review essay by Mohammed Hanif, I realised that when you are a dictator and you want a veneer of legitimacy, you can always conduct a referendum. And to be sure of your victory, you can ask an extremely loaded question with a binary choice.

Sample this question that ‘sought endorsement’ for Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation programme in 1984.

Do you endorse the process initiated by the President of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and are you in favour of continuation and further consolidation of that process and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people?

There’s no way that anyone is going to answer a ‘no’ to that question with such a framing. I’m actually surprised that 1.5 percent answered ‘No” to this question. Maybe it was Zia’s men at work lest anyone accuse the referendum of being unfair.

Then Musharraf also held a referendum in 2002 to seek approval for a five-year extension to his rule. Check out how that question was framed:

For the survival of the local government system, establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms, end to sectarianism and extremism, and to fulfil the vision of Quaid-e-Azam [Great leader – ie Pakistan’s late founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah], would you like to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan for five years?

Another loaded masterpiece to say the least.

Further reading: An excellent question on why the Brexit referendum question was unsatisfactory.

The False Promise of Connectivity in International Relations

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable became operational in 1858, utopians hoped that nationalism would soon perish. And just two years ago Facebook was talking about how it aimed to create one global community.

But we now know that nationalism has proved to be an adversary deserving far more respect and reflection than what the technologists believed it to be. For an excellent discussion on this topic, I recommend this episode of The Secret History of the Future podcast.

What caught my attention were the parallels between the false promises of information connectivity in inter-personal relations and infrastructure connectivity in international relations.

It is almost an axiom in foreign policy circles today that powerful nation-states should envision and deliver on infrastructure projects in regions where they seek higher influence. China’s BRI has only strengthened this narrative — alternatives to BRI are often just modified variants of infrastructure connectivity projects. This narrative has its own dodgy economic reasoning as well: connectivity projects are thought of as ‘global public goods’ providing initiatives.

Even if we leave the misapplication of economic theory aside, the utility of many connectivity projects is not immediately clear to me. One, these projects will also run up against the force of nationalism. Familiarity will breed contempt regardless of the benefits of these projects. The BRI has started encountering this force in Palau and Sierra Leone. It’s not long before CPEC will face this challenge as well. Two, even from an economic standpoint, assuming the financial risk of connectivity projects in under-governed regions makes no sense for the investing countries. Just like pipeline projects, it is not difficult to sabotage such road projects — warlords and terrorists can easily block them in areas where the writ of the state runs weak.

Maybe converting infrastructure debt to equity control (in the form of transfer of land rights etc) is the primary consideration that makes countries project connectivity as the lynchpin of their foreign policy.

 

Fissures Emerge in the Pakistani Military-Jihadi Complex

Not all’s well with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC). The anti-blasphemy protestors have blocked arterial roads in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi. Led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), they are opposing the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case.

The current showdown — amongst other things — is different in the sense that it threatens the unity of the Pakistani MJC. In our chapter for the Contemporary Handbook of Pakistan 2017, we had argued that there are five factors that keep the MJC afloat. One of the factors was ‘Islam as the ideological refuge’. And it is here that trouble has been brewing now.

The TLP is outdoing the other elements of the MJC in championing the Islamist cause. Having failed in the last elections, they seem to have decided that mobilised violence is their weapon of choice. And this time around, they are leaving no stone unturned. A cleric, Afzal Qadri, speaking to a group of protestors earlier in the week even called for a revolt against the army chief and the putative government. The Pakistani army soon went on the defensive with DG, ISPR issuing a statement that the army had nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s decision. Last time around when the TLP protested in November 2017, the army managed to get the protesters off the streets by throwing money at them. Thus the stakes are much higher now and a similar move will most likely be rejected by the TLP. This means that a showdown within the MJC is likely to take place in the days to come.

PS: It is almost as if Pakistan is hellbent on writing a playbook called Why and How to not be Pakistan.

 

 

CAATSA Implementation Makes US Strategy in Afghanistan Even More Unsustainable

The next chapter in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) saga will unfold on November 5, 2018. On this day, the provisions reimposing sanctions on entities trading with Iran in certain sectors will come into effect.

In India, the primary discussion point has been whether India will receive a significant reduction exemption on November 5. Such an exemption will allow Indian companies to continue importing Iranian oil without coming under ‘menu-based’ sanctions. It is quite likely that India might receive an exemption for both oil imports and for development of the Chabahar port. However that is not the only point of contention for India and the region.

Regardless of the decision on November 5, CAATSA is already closing the door on new solutions for the war in Afghanistan.

First, it increases the costs for Iran and India to collaborate on Afghanistan. We had written last year that not only will the Chabahar port help Afghanistan, the US will have much to gain from a connectivity project for Central Asia which does not have China at its core. But with the threat of secondary sanctions looming, companies at the margin will not invest in any project that involves Iran — why assume the risk of a volatile geopolitical environment which comes at a prospective cost of making business in the US market difficult?

Second, it also closes the door on a Russia – US understanding in Afghanistan. What we often forget is that ouster of the Taliban after 9/11 was made easier by an alignment of interests between US and Russia albeit for a brief period of time. Russia at that time provided critical logistical support from Afghanistan’s north and shared crucial intelligence for US-led coalition forces. CAATSA makes any such arrangement in the future even more unlikely.

Combine these two effects with the fact that the US attempt at talks with the Taliban are making no headways, and what you get is that there are zero new possibilities to end the war in Afghanistan. Only two scenarios remain. One involves the US withdrawing out of Afghanistan completely. The second involves the US returning to its dependence on Pakistan. Both scenarios will leave Afghanistan worse-off.

 

 

Reevaluating Citizenship

Last week saw the European Union raise concerns about golden passports, schemes that amount to little more than a sale of citizenship by some EU member-nations to rich individuals in lieu of investments. The EU is understandably worried that many individuals with questionable credentials could use a golden passport to enter and operate in the region. This is an excellent opportunity to wonder aloud about what citizenship entails in today’s world, particularly because there have been plenty of other cases in the past year alone that drive home the need for more clarity on the subject.

First, there was the case of Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire, being granted Israeli citizenship and using that to enter the UK when the extension of his original visa was held up by red tape and tensions between the two countries. Israel grants citizenship to any person of the Jewish faith who wishes to relocate to the country and a person holding an Israeli passport can visit the UK without a visa for short periods. But is not a citizenship based on religious denomination an anachronism? Religion remains a powerful identifier but should it be a sufficient condition to gain citizenship of a country?

Second, the conversation following France’s football World Cup win earlier this year shows the need to distinguish between citizenship and nationalism. Hamsini Hariharan has written about this nationalism debate before in the Pragati Express. However, what would be of interest is to know how many of the victorious French squad hold dual-citizenship, something that is recognised by France. If the answer is yes, how would it affect the existing conversation?

Third, and not really connected to citizenship, is the farcical case of Boris Becker, the former tennis player seeking immunity from bankruptcy proceedings by claiming he has a diplomatic passport from the Central African Republic, which the latter denied. While there are genuine reasons for the continued existence of diplomatic immunity, an illustrative list of other cases from the past shows that the system can be abused. And, in the context of this post, if an individual with sufficient funds and influence manages to gain not just citizenship but also diplomatic immunity, there is surely a need to revisit the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to see if a change to the status quo is necessary.

Closer home, two features of Indian citizenship bear mentioning. One, the absence of dual-citizenship. Two, the absence of a monetary component, be it through net worth or investments in the country, to become a naturalised citizen under the Citizenship Act, 1955. These are sound positions, lending citizenship an exclusivity while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that come with ascribing a monetary value to it. It would be interesting to see if the world moves towards a similar system in the future.

Note: It would remiss to end this post by only mentioning the positives of Indian citizenship without mentioning the recent furore over the register of citizens in Assam, which surely demands a better way of being handled than stripping four million people of their citizenship.

A Major Setback in Kandahar

Things just got worse in South Afghanistan. The screenshot below taken from Long War Journal’s Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan project illustrates the significance. The areas marked in dark grey are under Taliban control. Those in red are contested districts. The uncoloured ones are controlled by the Government of Afghanistan. Kandahar city and surrounding districts immediately pop out as islands of government control in Southern Afghanistan. May be not for long anymore.

Image source: Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan, Long War Journal by Bill Roggio and Alexandra Gutowski

The reason is that Lt Gen Abdul Raziq, who was the police chief and the governor of the province was killed on 18 Oct 2018 supposedly by Taliban fighters who had infiltrated his inner circle. Gen Raziq was a major anti-Taliban leader in the South and his death makes Taliban’s complete control of the South imminent.

In many of our previous articles covering Afghanistan, we had mentioned how important Raziq’s role was. This is from 2015:

An unstated tenet of Afghan history is that the march for control of Kabul and the country is predicated on wresting control of Kandahar, the Taliban’s traditional base. In recent times though, ever since General Abdul Raziq was appointed police chief of the province, the Taliban have not tasted much success in Kandahar. Raziq has singularly been responsible for the relative peace in the province.

Raziq was no stranger to suicide attacks on his life. Various estimates say that there have been 30-40 attempts on his life before the fatal one. Only in May this year, there was an suicide bombing in front of his house. In his previous speeches, he had singled out the Haqqani Network and ISI for trying to wipe out the military leadership of the province.

It seems unlikely that such an attack could have been arranged without Pakistan’s support. It is also strange that this attack happened while the Taliban leadership is in talks with the US envoy. Moreover, the attack took place in the presence of the US Commander in Afghanistan. Some reports even claim that the main target of this attack were these US military leaders and not Lt Gen Raziq.

This is a big moment for Afghanistan. Even as elections take place on Saturday, the focus will be on what the US decides to do in response.

 

 

 

India’s Human Capital Problem Won’t go Away.

The World Bank released it’s first Human Capital Index (HCI) on the 11th.

Our government was quick to reject the findings – presumably, in respect of the comments on India*.

The headline finding – “A child born in India today will be 44 percent as productive when she grows up as she could be if she enjoyed complete education and full health.”

But we already know much of this – for example, that we have more stunted children than all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Part of the motivation for the Swacch Bharat exercise came from the research regarding stunted chidren – the insight being that fecal-borne diseases led to stunted growth, rather than food shortage. Sanitation would be a key contributor to children achieving their full growth potential.

Rejecting the World Bank findings does nothing to improve the lot of these children.

Our government’s reaction to the HCI report mirrors the reaction of an earlier regime to our participation in the bi-annual PISA rating on education in 2009. The report showed our students at the bottom of the charts – we did beat Kyrgyzistan, though**. Lant Pritchett said, “The PISA 2009+ results, which are both official and are beyond gain-saying, are unspeakably bad.” Our bureaucrats and politicians muttered some stuff about the tests being inappropriately designed, and withdrew in a sulk.

But again, we already know how dysfunctional our school system is. The home-grown ASER tests have measured learning levels for over a decade now, and tell us that less than half our 5th grade children can read a 2nd grade text; less than half of 8th grade children can do a simple division. The 2016 ASER report underlined that “this situation has remained unchanged since 2009, when the Right to Education, or RTE, Act was passed by Parliament.”

Dismissing a report just because it was Not Made Here helps no one – it shows a deep-seated inferiority and refusal to deal with reality.

 

*http://databank.worldbank.org/data/download/hci/HCI_2pager_IND.pdf

** https://blog.theleapjournal.org/2012/01/first-pisa-results-for-india-end-of.html

 

Deontology and Dogma

When I read the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Deontological Ethics, I was struck by a phrase that brought out the distinction between deontology and consequentialism. It states that in deontology,

…the Right is said to have priority over the Good.

Does this mean that deontology as an ethical discourse is vulnerable to the influx of dogmatic positions masquerading as the Right? I ask this because deontology depends on a pre-emptive determination of whether a particular act passes the necessary ethical muster. This can lead to a regressive agenda hijacking the discourse and becoming the norm, suppressing dissident voices in the process.

In its defence, the article does provide a more nuanced study of deontology. It can be argued that a hijacking of the discourse would be antithetical to the way deontology is meant to function. For example, true agency is not being exercised in the agent-centric version of deontology if an individual is merely following the norms set by others. Similarly, a regressive position is unlikely to be in the interests of the subject matter of an act in the patient-centric version of deontology. Both of these are valid arguments for a continued engagement with deontological thought, particularly given some of the benefits that this discourse brings to the table.

That said, these discussions around ethical positions often take place in an ideal setting. This approach fails in a setting where actors do not necessarily spend a lot of time introspecting on the merits and demerits of their actions. Of course, this fallibility can be extended to any ethical standpoint that requires an individual to be aware of his actions. What this means for the study of ethical discourses is a different question altogether.

Note: If this short post seems muddled in its reasoning, it is because my thoughts on the subject are still in a state of flux. I do hope to attain more clarity on this in the future.

Why the RBI held interest rates (the dog that didn’t bark)

On Friday, the RBI surprised our financial markets by holding the interest rate structure.

There was a broad-based consensus that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the RBI would raise rates by 0.25% (25 bps). Some market watchers predicted a steeper hike, of 0.5%. Less than 20 % of economists surveyed before the MPC meet thought it would vote to hold rates. Yet, the committee took that decision, by an overwhelming majority of 5:1.

My effort here is not to opine whether the MPC took the right decision or not; both on the committee, and outside, there are highly qualified economists, armed with massive data sets, who do this kind of analysis full-time. I am, instead intrigued by how there can be such a sharp divide between economists on the panel, and those outside – 82% on the outside for a hike; 83% on the inside against it. Polar opposites.

Why would this have happened?

At this point, I can think of only one reason – the economists on the inside have access to data that those on the outside don’t have.

This cannot be about external conditions, which occupy so much of the economic news today – oil prices on the boil; our widening foreign exchange gap; the sliding rupee; surging interest rates in the US; reverse fund flow from emerging markets to global financial centres.

It can only be about Indian data sets. Our public data shows India is growing at 8.2% per annum. If this were the case, since imported inflation is a threat, it would make sense to raise interest rates pre-emptively. But supposing the economy is NOT growing at 8%, and domestic demand is under threat, then it might just make sense to hold back an interest rate hike.

Economy-watchers know that the new GDP series has several inconsistencies, but are not equipped with the data to understand exactly how wrong it is; the RBI, on the other hand, has much more insight into the current state of the economy, and the risks to growth.

To my mind, the RBI’s concern about the fragility of the Indian economy is the most logical explanation for its surprise decision to hold back a rate hike.

Frederick Douglass and Some Lessons for the Present

Too often political speeches aim to temporarily rouse the passions of those who listen without making any attempt to be a record for posterity. To be prescient requires an understanding of human nature and the wisdom to foresee the future that is beyond the ability of many who engage in rhetoric. This cannot be said of Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer and abolitionist, and his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, delivered all the way back in 1852 but which remains timely even now.

The speech is a great piece of oration. It deserves to be read for the strength of its purpose and the clarity of its vision. Here are the two things in it that stood out for me, aspects that resonate in today’s world.

One, when Douglass refuses to engage in argument and reason with those who support slavery. Instead, he says he will rebuke such people and lay bare their faults as individuals. These are his words:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

This is a position that is reminiscent of many of the so-called liberal elites today (exemplified, in the US at least, by several late-night show hosts). The reasoning goes that the people you are in opposition to hold values that you disdain so much that it makes no sense to try and reason with them, to engage in a conversation with the aim of persuading them to your line of thinking. Is this the best method to adopt? I do not have an answer to this yet.

Two, and a more unambiguous lesson at that, is that Douglass is critical of his nation’s hypocrisy when it comes to liberty: extolling it as one of the foundations on which the nation is built and at the same time depriving millions of their liberty under the institution of slavery. He does not mince his words when talking about these national inconsistencies. If someone were to utter the sort of harsh words that Douglass uses today, they are likely to be branded unpatriotic. But as Douglass’ example shows, calling out the ills of your nation is an act of patriotism itself. For only when you know where you are going wrong as a nation can you correct your course.

Note: For more information about Douglass’ life, I would recommend this episode from BBC’s In Our Time.

India’s Defence Production Optimisation Problem

The Caravan has an excellent in-depth story on the Rafale controversy. Beyond the specifics of the current controversy, the investigation throws light on the problems in defence production that continue to haunt India’s strategic ambitions.

On the face of it, defence production suffers from an acute case of what I had referred to earlier as hyper multi-objective optimisation. My argument was that the reason some government policies in India fail is because they try to optimise several objectives simultaneously, ultimately creating a solution that meets none of the objectives.

Now defence procurement is essentially an oligopsony i.e. it is a market where only a few buyers exists — only a few nation-states in the world have the financial muscle to buy 10 submarines or 100 multirole aircraft for example. My argument is that this oligopsony makes the optimisation problem even worse. The government believes that because it has more weight in the market, it has the luxury of optimising many more objectives in the process.

Let us look at what the government is optimising when it sets out to purchase defence equipment today.

  1. defence preparedness: primarily determined by the end users i.e. the armed forces
  2. costs: both explicit and opportunity costs
  3. strategic value: every defence purchase from foreign players raises the question that should we buy from existing trade partners or not
  4. creating an indigenous defence-industrial complex: this is further divided into two sub-goals. One is sustaining the ailing government-owned public sector companies. The second one is spurring investment from private Indian entities.

Now, even without any prior background, optimising all these objectives appears to be a herculean task. But even while India’s procurement processes were notoriously lethargic, new objectives were being added. The fourth objective was explicitly added  through an offset policy in 2005 and more recently through a strategic partnership model in 2016. And quite naturally, it is this fourth objective that has become the main sticking point in the Rafale controversy.

So with the government’s flagship reform failing, we are back to the starting point: what should be the mechanism to address India’s defence requirements? What principles should govern procurement and purchase?

One of the ways to resolve hyper multi-objective dilemmas is withdrawal. The government could let go of the aim to indigenise when it is looking to make a specific defence purchase. Get rid of the offsets policy altogether for a few years. The indigenisation problem should then be targeted at a later point of time. This is just one method. There could be other variations of choosing objectives that can work better but what is clear is that the current method needs a complete and urgent shakeup.