A piece in the USA Today this week highlights the use of open-source information in the U.S. intelligence community. As more information is available on the Web, it is becoming an increasingly important piece of the intel pie -- even making the President's morning briefing. There's a clash since some in the intelligence community feel that the classified sources are the most reliable, but others argue you can learn about your enemy by what he or she says in sources available for all to read. Robert David Steele, ex-CIA and Marine officer, advocates a flip-flop of spending in favor of open-source over more hush-hush sources:
I'm not a librarian saying open sources are cool and we can do this...I'm a very good former spy saying open sources are cool and we can do this."
Though it's always a battle to tell fact from fiction online, it's sure easier than getting access to classified material. Given that 19,000 FBI personnel are still waiting for desktop Internet access, it seems reasonable to devote some more resources to this type of intelligence.
In his piece "The Next Generation of Terror" for the current issue of FP, Marc Sageman describes the new reality of "leaderless jihad," in which extremist ideology and terrorist tactics spread through online social networks rather than hierarchical organizations. In light of this, it's encouraging to see some intelligence professionals shifting their focus to the dangers in plain view.
For this week's Seven Questions, "Waiting for a Cyber Pearl Harbor," FP asked Richard A. Clarke, former U.S. counterterrorism chief and former special advisor to the president on cybersecurity, about what offensive capabilities the new U.S. Air Force Cyber Command (AFCYBER) should have. He succinctly replied: "Highly classified ones."
Though Clarke isn't interested in mentioning specifics, someone else is. Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder of the U.S. 8th Air Force, under which AFCYBER will be housed once it's officially launched this fall, has revealed how the United States plans to "hit back" in cyberspace.
In an interview with ZDNet.co.uk, he said offensive capabilities that AFCYBER is working on include denial of service, confidential data loss, data manipulation, and system integrity loss. These "cyberpunches" will be paired with kinetic (physical) attacks. Elder said:
Offensive cyberattacks in network warfare make kinetic attacks more effective, [for example] if we take out an adversary's integrated defence systems or weapons systems. This is exploiting cyber to achieve our objectives.
Now that the U.S. military has put on its cyber boxing gloves, it looks like it'll be no holds barred in the online world.
With everyone else distracted by the financial crisis, high oil prices, the Iraq war, and the battle against al Qaeda, it is a relief to know that some folks in the U.S. Congress have their priorities straight. Right now, the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet is hosting a hearing entitled "Online Virtual Worlds: Applications and Avatars in a User-Generated Medium." Watch it live here.
Facebook has become Shaitan incarnate for many preachers in Saudi Arabia, not least of all because six in 10 users of the social networking site in the country are women. This apparently makes Saudi men nervous. Influential cleric Sheikh Ali al-Maliki, for instance, has derided Facebook as a "a door to lust" and warned against "the accession of women to it."
Now, it appears, some Saudi men are taking matters into their own hands. London's Daily Telegraph reports:
A young Saudi Arabian woman was murdered by her father for chatting on the social network site Facebook, it has emerged. The unnamed woman from Riyadh was beaten and shot after she was discovered in the middle of an online conversation with a man...."
Shocking, but then again we're talking about a country that arrests American women for sitting with their male colleagues at the local Starbucks.
[I]n a new survey, most Chinese say they approve of internet control and management, especially when it comes from their government.
According to findings from the fourth and most recent of a series of surveys about internet use in China from 2000 to 2007, over 80% of respondents say they think the internet should be managed or controlled, and in 2007, almost 85% say they think the government should be responsible for doing it.
One major reason for this overall finding, I'd have to think, is that 93 percent of respondents say that "much of internet content to be unsuitable for children."
When asked which online content they thought should be controlled, more internet users targeted the most offensive or annoying content: 87% of internet users would control or manage pornography; 86% violent content; 83% spam or junk mail; 66% advertisements; 64% slander against individuals.
But what about political content? Actually, a growing number of people think that is a problem, too:
Since 2005, the percentage of users who say that online content about "politics" should be controlled or managed jumped from 8% to 41%, by far the biggest increase of any items tested.
[Guo Liang, deputy director of the Research Center for Social Development, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences] said that the explanation for this increase probably lies in the spate of widely publicized incidents of fraud, blackmail, sensationalism, and other abuse of Chinese citizens via the internet. The Chinese word used for "politics" in this survey, zhengzhi, is not confined simply to political rights or competition for political control but may be understood to include larger questions of public morality and social values.
There are plenty of other fascinating findings in Pew's report, so read the whole thing.
Whether it's videos of him acting drunk or angry, or Web sites publishing reports of text messages he may or may not have sent his ex-wife, the Internet has not always been kind to Nicolas Sarkozy. But with all that he has on his plate, how can the French president possibly keep track of all the possibly damaging material about him that circulates on the web?
That's where Nicolas Princen comes in. Nicknamed "Sarkozy's eye," the 24-year-old has been hired to act as "a sort of Internet early warning system, surveying everything that is making a buzz regarding the President." Princen cut his chops maintaining this online video site for Sarkozy, which includes an intro that would make Kim Jong-il blush. While I understand that life can be rough for public figures in the YouTube era, a better strategy for Sarkozy might just be to stop making a fool of himself in public.
Last month, pro-Palestinians, who hope Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state, were angered when the board game Monopoly listed "Jerusalem, Israel," as a candidate city for its world edition. Recently, though, the controversy went the other way around at Facebook, the social-networking site.
Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank, in places such as Maale Adumin and Ariel, were angered when Facebook automatically listed their hometowns as being located in Palestine. Facebook heard their outcry, however, and now residents in Israeli West Bank settlements can choose between with Israel and Palestine.
Of course, opposing Facebook groups are now looking for members. The group "ITS [sic] NOT 'PALESTINE'- IT'S 'ISRAEL'" has nearly 14,000 members, while the group "If Palestine is removed from Facebook... Im [sic] closing my account." has around 4,600 members.
It all goes to show that on the Web, nobody has a monopoly on outrage.
Should we be worried that the Web site for Iraq's Ministry of Health has turned into a conglomeration of dating websites and online car-insurance deals?
Warning: Passport recommends against exploring these Web sites, as your computer could become infested with spyware, or worse.
The Pentagon has banned Google Earth teams from making detailed street-level video maps of U.S. military bases.... Michael Kucharek, spokesman for U.S. Northern Command, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the decision was made after crews were allowed access to at least one base. He said military officials were concerned that allowing the 360-degree, street-level video could provide sensitive information to potential adversaries and endanger base personnel."
Um, no duh. Considering that Google Earth is a favorite tool of terrorist groups -- including the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which uses it to target and kill Israeli civilians -- this strikes me as a pretty common sense decision.
And it begs the question: Who the heck allowed a team from Google Earth, presumably carrying all sorts of video and mapping equipment, access to a U.S. military base in the first place?
With the race for the Democratic presidential nomination entering the homestretch, more and more people are talking about superdelegates, who may be crucial in determining whether the party's choice will be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But what are these superdelegates? Who gets to be one? Are you as confused about them as I am?
Rick Klau, an employee at Google, took on a personal project to help clarify things. He set up SuperDelegates.org, a wiki-style Web site that not only tells you how the Democratic Party's superdelegate system was developed, but also lists who all 795 of them are and whether or not they've pledged their vote to Clinton or Obama. Even cooler, Klau has done an overlay on Google Maps, so you can see where they're from and whether they're still undecided or are leaning toward one of the candidates. Check it out here.
We tend to imagine Hong Kong as a free-wheeling, anything goes kind of place. But in many ways, it still reflects the conservatism of the mainland, as a recent sex scandal reminds us. Edison Chen, a Canadian-born star who has done movies, albums, ad campaigns (I first got to known him as the face on my Pepsi cans in China) is now finito in the Hong Kong entertainment industry after indecent, OK, overtly pornographic, pictures of him and fellow female stars rocked the Special Administrative Region and spilled into the mainland and
When Edison took his laptop to get serviced, somebody found extremely graphic photos of sexual encounters with various actresses on his hard drive and published them on the Internet. Various local newspapers then splashed partially censored photos on their front pages for 10 days straight (the uncensored versions were accessible online, in separate magazine supplements, and were passed around on mobile phones or e-mail). What made the scandal especially shocking was that some of the female stars in the photos have built their careers on "innocent girl" images. The damaging coverage of the starlets has led to alleged death threats against Edison, and odd Hong Kong gang bounties like HK $500,000 (about USD $91,000) to chop off his hand, leading some to speculate that the women's management has mob ties.
While the overwhelming majority of people in Hong Kong didn't approve of the photos, polls also show that those who did see them sure seemed to keep clicking as they voiced their disapproval.
Edison has apologized and said he's stepping out of the industry once his current obligations are complete. Given the public outrage over "Sexy Photos Gate," saving face is probably the wise move for now. But I don't foresee a young star with so much of his career ahead of him staying away for that long. Something tells me he'll come through.
FP Editor in Chief Moisés Naím weighs in on Fidel Castro's retirement:
About a year ago Fidel Castro started blogging. Every week or so he posted his “Reflections of the Commander in Chief”. While not strictly a blog, in his internet musings “El Comandante” does what bloggers do: he comments on the news, chastises enemies (Bush, Aznar), extols friends (Hugo!) or rambles on subjects he cares about (sport and politics).
On Tuesday his most recent post, which as usual was also published in Granma, Cuba's leading newspaper, was a bit different: “I will neither aspire to nor will I accept, I repeat, I will neither aspire to nor will I accept the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief”, Castro wrote. Not many bloggers make history with their early morning postings. Moreover, in this history-making post El Comandante did reassure his readers that while he was relinquishing power they should not worry: he was keeping his blog. He would just change its name to “Reflections of El Compañero Fidel”.
Here's a quirky story: The Economist sued Jason Rose, who owns the domain name theeconomist.com, for infringing on its trade name (the magazine is housed at economist.com). The centerpiece of Rose's site is a picture of Alan Greenspan below the title, "The Economist." Below the photograph is this text:
Alan Greenspan, Ex-Chairman of Federal Reserve Board is The Economist of the Century
President Reagan called Alan Greenspan "the most powerful man in the world."
Other Notable Economists.
Submit your candidate for The Economist of the Century.
Other than some legal language, that's pretty much it. Rose insists he had never heard of the magazine when he registered his site in 1996, a claim grudgingly accepted by the World Intellectual Property Organisation panel that adjudicated the case. The panel ruled that Rose can keep the site because it could not determine that he had obtained it in bad faith.
What's particularly odd is that Rose appears to make no money from theeconomist.com. There are none of the usual ads or misleading links typical of domain-name squatters. It would appear Rose either really likes Alan Greenspan or really hates The Economist and wants to lead its readers astray.
I've blogged before about the U.S. State Department's bizarre daily appointments e-mail for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The e-mail often arrives after the events noted therein have already taken place, rendering it all but useless. Today was no different in that regard, except that whoever mailed it out seemed especially eager to inform me of Ms. Rice's morning meeting with defense ministers from Adriatic Charter states.
Today must be an especially an important day for Ms. Rice, so I'll reprint the e-mail below. Here's what flooded my inbox at 2:11 p.m. today:
SECRETARY OF STATE RICE: ON FOREIGN TRAVEL WITH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE NEGROPONTE: MORNING PRESS GAGGLE: 10:15 a.m. with Tom Casey DAILY PRESS BRIEFING:
9:45 a.m. Meeting with the Adriatic Charter (Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia) Defense Ministers.
(CAMERA SPRAY IN TREATY ROOM / EDITORIAL PRESENCE WELCOME / NO Q&A)
Pick up time for all press: 9:15 a.m. from the
Pick up time for all press: 10:10 a.m. from room 2310 / no late escort
**(at approximately 12:00 p.m. with Sean McCormack)**
SECRETARY OF STATE RICE:
ON FOREIGN TRAVEL WITH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE NEGROPONTE:
MORNING PRESS GAGGLE:
10:15 a.m. with Tom Casey
DAILY PRESS BRIEFING:
Because you are liable to be arrested, blindfolded, harshly interrogated, spat upon, and beaten into unconsciousness, only to wake up and face 5 years in jail. That's the fate of 26-year-old Moroccan computer engineer Fouad Mourtada, who in a statement said:
I actually created this account on January 15, 2008. It remained on line a few days before somebody closed it. There are so many profiles of celebrities on Facebook. I never thought that by creating a profile of his highness prince Moulay Rachid I am harming him in any way. I, as a matter of fact, did not send any message from that account to anyone. It was just a joke, a gag.
His trial starts next week.
Sedo, a domain-name auctioneer, is holding an auction for three big Web addresses. Got deep pockets? For the right price, one of these could be yours:
|Domain||Reserve price range||Current bid|
|Iraq.com:||€500,000 - 1,000,000||€110,000|
|Iran.com:||$200,000 - 499,999||$300,000|
|Arabia.com:||$500,000 - 1,000,000||$270,000|
|Kosovo.com:||$200,000 - 499,999||$100,000|
With six days left in the auction, there's still plenty of time for you to assemble some cash.
Last week, I noted that rogue French trader Jérôme Kerviel had become a minor-league Internet superhero, largely through Facebook fan groups. (Today, the member count for the group "Jérôme Kerviel should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics" stands at 2,813.) But along with online jokesters, Facebook's members apparently also consist of highly motivated social activists.
On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Colombians, along with supporters around the world in nearly 200 cities, led protests against the pro-communist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The protests aren't unexpected—the rebel group has been terrorizing Colombia for more than four decades—but the method of organization is what's novel.
Roughly two months ago, after photos and video of FARC captives surfaced, enraged people began to join the Facebook group Un Millón De Voces Contra Las FARC ("A Million Voices Against FARC"). The group then grew with incredible speed to include more than 280,000 members, publishing its pleas for "No More! No More Kidnapping! No More Lies! No More Murder! No More FARC!" in Spanish, English, French, German, and Portuguese. The resulting protests are some of the largest ever seen on an international scale. Not bad for a Web site that started out as a networking platform for Ivy Leaguers.
More than 95 percent of international telephone and data traffic travels via undersea cables. Knowing that, it's still surprising that an accident in Egypt can bring down most of the Internet... in India. Today, Internet users from Cairo to Calcutta are either without the Web or their service is operating at a fraction of its normal capacity. The culprit? A ship off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, dragged its anchor and snagged two major underwater telecommunications cables. Unfortunately for Internet addicts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, and India, the SeaMeWe-4 and FLAG Europe-Asia cables, which carry the majority of Internet service between Western Europe and the Middle East and South Asia, were the ones cut. See the handy map below from the folks at TeleGeography for the specifics:
Stephan Beckert at TeleGeography told me that cuts to undersea cables are actually quite common, but rarely does it happen to two cables at once—and to cables that bear so much traffic. Of course, disasters do happen: Internet and telephone service in Asia was disrupted for weeks in December 2006 after nine undersea cables were damaged due to a big earthquake off the coast of Taiwan. But there's not as much risk of disruption when there are a host of other cables (such as between, say, North American and Europe) for traffic to spill onto. Here's a fascinating map of the traffic our current system of underwater cables can handle:
It's unclear when normal service could be restored to the affected countries; it could be a few days or as long as two weeks. The Arabist, an anonymous blogger based in Egypt, sarcastically predicts "complete social breakdown" when people find themselves unable to update Facebook every few minutes. Here's hoping it doesn't come to that.
I never really quite understood the rationale for having to switch off all electronic devices during airplane takeoffs and landings. The stated reason for the ban is that the devices could somehow interfere with the plane's operation or ignite a fire after a crash.
But Boeing apparently has some more serious kinks to work out with its newest jet, the 787 Dreamliner, which already has 800 advance orders ahead of its November launch. The Federal Aviation Administration fears that a new feature on the plane that allows passengers to connect their mobile computers to the Internet may allow a terrorist to disrupt the plane's control systems. This is especially worrisome, as we know that many terrorists have advanced engineering degrees and could be familiar with how to carry out just such an operation. The Web sites of jihadist sympathizers are often very professionally done and have sophisticated encryption features.
With airport security bans as stringent as they already are, I wouldn't be surprised if an outright ban on electronic devices in the cabin were instituted in the near future. That ought to boost the approval ratings of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
Nestor Kirchner may be the former president of Argentina, but there's one person who has refused to obey his ex-presidential orders: his 17-year-old daughter Florencia.
Daddy isn't happy that his adolescent daughter, whose mother is current Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been posting wild-child photos on her blog. He is reported to have begged her to stop posting images. Like any smart teenager, though, Florencia simply changes her screen name. She has gone from "bananarepublic" to "coffelove" to her present "florkey."
Some photos are innocuous and reveal rare glimpses of the first family's life, such as a photo of Florencia backstage with her brother and two cousins at her mother's inauguration last year. Others, though, have alarmed some in the Argentine press, because they show her wandering around Buenos Aires with no security detail in sight (e.g. a photo of Florencia on the subway with a friend).
At least her parents may be happy to know that when she interviewed herself online, she said her favorite country was, "Argentina, I think."
In the latest issue of FP, I wrote (subscription required) about the efforts of ICANN, the group that gives out Internet domain names, to "internationalize" the Web. Starting this year, ICANN will allow users to use non-Roman characters in top level domain names. For example, Arabic-speaking users will no longer have to end Web addresses in ".com"—they can register the last part of their Web address in their own native language.
Tina Dam, the executive director at ICANN who is in charge of the change, said that part of the reason for the switch was fears that China could "split the root," or create a second Internet that only recognizes Chinese characters. This would allow the Chinese government to control what people see. If, for instance, a Chinese user tried to access an FP article on censorship in China, the government could direct them to a completely different site.
Dam said she was confident the change would appease the Chinese. But ICANN now has a problem with Russia. Despite ICANN's efforts to incorporate Russian alphabet characters into Web addresses (it is one of 11 sets of characters the group is incorporating), Moscow is pushing for the creation of an Internet that recognizes only Cyrillic characters. Expert warnings echo those voiced about a Chinese Internet: increased international isolation and more government censorship of the Web. Given the wide control the Kremlin already has over media in Russia and its unwillingness to play nice with pretty much anyone these days, a separate Russian Internet might be just as dangerous a prospect as a separate Chinese one.
There are 71 characters named "Hillary," though a search for "HillaryClinton" comes up dry. Mike Huckabee, with 30 as "Huckabee" and two people going by "Mikehuckabee," is no slouch. There are 27 "McCain" avatars and another four for "JohnMcCain," and even "Romney," with 25 characters, makes an appearance.
Facebook has become a popular platform for public figures to reach out to supporters and fans. Presidential candidates, for instance, can use the hugely popular social-networking site to build official profiles and post updates from the campaign trail. The Facebook gods therefore frown on pranksters who attempt to impersonate celebrities by creating a fake profile. They also encourage legitimate users to report alleged impostors in order to maintain the integrity of the site.
The trouble is, it's often difficult to determine whether a celebrity profile is indeed a fake. This is exactly what happened to British MP Steve Webb, who recently discovered that he had been locked out of his own account and had his profile removed from the site. Several e-mails to Facebook were able to convince the company that the 10-year member of the House of Commons was no impostor. (Facebook eventually reinstated his account and issued the MP an official apology for the confusion.)
I'm surprised that this type of thing doesn't happen more often. But Facebook, as far as I can tell, does a pretty decent job weeding out the fake profiles that seem ubiquitous on other social networking sites. They do it so well, in fact, that perhaps the Department of Homeland Security could contract Facebook to run the"No Fly List." I'm sure Ted Kennedy would be happy to sponsor the necessary legislation.
Passport would be remiss this year if it failed to mention that December 2007 is the 10th anniversary of the coining of the word "weblog."
Jorn Barger (the man in the photo) is widely credited with inventing the word "Weblog" on Dec. 17 or Dec. 23 (the exact date seems to vary depending on the source) of 1997 when describing the list of links he had posted on his Web site Robot Wisdom. This list logged sites he stumbled upon while surfing the Web. According to the Wall Street Journal, Barger wrote on his site on Dec. 23, 1997:
I decided to start my own webpage logging the best stuff I find as I surf, on a daily basis.
Barger, who apparently has continued his blogging at this site, seems to be an eccentric character, who purportedly loves James Joyce and who has been accused of being anti-Semitic. Recently, though, Wired magazine was able to track him down and get him to share 10 tips for novice bloggers.
Technically, Barger isn't the first blogger. Justin Hall, for example, chronicled his life online from 1994 to 2005. But Barger is the first to make regular postings using the term "Weblog." (The word "blog" seems to have originated in 1999 when Peter Merholz deconstructed "weblog" into "we blog" in the sidebar of his Web site.) The phenomenon that Barger and others started has today exploded into a cacophony of more than 100 million blogs.
When Ayman al-Zawahiri took to cyberspace on Sunday to gloat about Britain's departure from Southern Iraq, the Islamist websites that carried his video made a startling announcement. Apparently, al-Qaeda's number two wants to hear from you. Wired's Danger Room blog has the transcript:
As-Sahab Foundation for Islamic Media, in coordination with Al-Fajr Center, is pleased to announce the organizing of an open meeting with Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he will reply to questions directed to him by individuals, organizations and all information media outlets.
Please try to keep the question brief and focused. Organizations and media outlets are requested to give their name at the end of the question, and we request the brothers supervising the collection of questions to transmit them as is without any changes or alteration, whether they be friendly or hostile. As-Sahab will do its best to publish the reply of Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri to as many questions at possible at the nearest possible opportunity, with Allah's help and guidance.
Zawahiri apparently plans to respond to the questions in a video sometime next month. Danger Room's Noah Shachtman has already started the ball rolling with some possible questions for him:
Why are you so pissed off? What's your next diabolical plot? Where can a Predator deliver a little present to you right now? And what's up with that big ol' splotch on your forehead?"
The presidential YouTube debates were painful enough, but this whole "Web 2.0" thing has clearly gone too far when even the evil-doers are getting in on it. Though, if that bible guy decides to write in, Zawahiri should have a much easier time answering than the Republicans did.
Vermiculate. Lobscouse. Desuetude. Macerate.
Just about every American high school student who has planned to attend university has had to learn words such as these in preparation for the SAT exam that is used as part of the college admissions process.
Now, by learning these words, whether for fun or for test preparation, you can also help end hunger. A computer programmer created a Web site, Freerice.com, that throws multiple-choice vocabulary questions at you. For every one you answer correctly, the site donates 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program. The first few questions are relatively easy, but as you answer questions correctly, subsequent ones become progressively more difficult.
Catholic clergy in Italy have had a lot to get upset about recently. First, Italian Catholics who have a custom of carrying around tiny pictures of saints in their wallets and purses no longer have to worry about their santini becoming worn and tattered. Instead, they can buy a €3 ($4.50 U.S.) weekly subscription from a Milan-based company that lets them download images of three saints onto their mobile phones. (Did Italians ever consider just laminating their santini?) Accompanying prayers cost about 50 U.S. cents, which sounds like a bargain. But a bishop complained to La Stampa newspaper that the downloadable saints are "in really bad taste."
What's really in bad taste, though, is a recent TV commercial for Red Bull energy drink. It was pulled in Italy after a priest complained that it depicted the nativity scene in a "sacrilegious way." The ad shows four wise men, not three, visiting baby Jesus. The fourth wise man offered the infant cans of Red Bull. The commercial ends with fluttering angels in the sky chugging Red Bull and illustrating the company's slogan, "Red Bull gives you wings." You can watch it here:
Of course, Christianity isn't the only religion in which connecting to God via mobile phones has caused a stir. Ring tones that feature Koranic verses and azan, calls to prayer, have had a mixed reception in the Muslim world, as FP noted earlier this year.
Culture almost always takes time to adapt to new technologies. In the 19th century, Muslims were divided about gramophone recordings of their holy book. Saudi clerics denounced the television when it was first introduced to the kingdom. But except for groups such as the Amish, people the world over seem to have found ways to make religion and technology compatible. Some people just need more time to adapt than others.
Yesterday, I noted that hiring virtual personal assistant (VPAs) from India and other developing countries was becoming increasingly popular in Western countries. I asked whether employing a VPA in India to respond to your every whim is a neo-imperial, exploitative phenomenon, or whether it is just a new and novel way for trade to give us what we want, while providing entrepreneurs in emerging markets with ways to expand their businesses.
Sunder P., the director of GetFriday, one of the best-known providers of VPAs, wrote in with a response. Exploitative and neo-imperial? Resoundingly not, says Sunder P. Here's what he had to say:
In the scenario of a service economy, I think Indians are more imperialistic than the Westerners, because we can't do without our nannies, cooks, house-maids and all the paraphernalia. Westerners in general are not used to such comforts and hence are more likely to feel pangs of guilt. The other factor triggering it could be that Indians workers are generally hardworking, polite and a little docile. They are not used to frequent appreciation and endorsement which is common with Westerners. Hence when they get genuine appreciation from clients, they try their best to reciprocate and may sometimes end up doing more than they should. So you end up making the client feel guilty with all the attention rather than good. […]
Does such a service pamper your ego and soul? Yes, it would to some extent and I think it should. But so would a salon, a spa, a concierge service, an exclusive premium credit card do that to your ego. Does the client or the person rendering the service feel guilty about it? I guess not.
The only things we constantly ask ourselves whenever we get any weird requests are 1) Is it unethical? 2) Is it illegal? 3) Is it derogatory to our staff? If the answer is NO, then we take them on. If YES, then we politely decline. […]
Business apart, the positive aspect of this story for us has been that we have been able to provide employment to more than 100 people from B-cities (smaller cities) in India after training them to handle international clients. That translates to 100 success stories of small town people getting groomed to take on the global market. And they are immensely proud of what they do and they would be deeply offended if someone remarked that they are triggering imperialistic fantasies. Hence, I am firmly of the opinion that it is a genuine win-win situation for both sides, notwithstanding the fear and paranoia about loss of jobs in the West. We are staring at a world where work will flow to places that have the right talent to get quality work done at the most economical prices.
This sounds pretty convincing. I have to admit, though, the name "GetFriday" does have an imperial-sounding, Robinson Crusoe kind of ring to it.
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