Category Archives: geoeconomics

Over Your Dead Body: the Creation of Internet Companies

Jeff Kosseff’s “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet” (2019) explains how the internet was created. The 26 words are these: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” They form Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, itself a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.   Section 230 shields online platforms from legal liability for content generated by third-party users. Put simply: If you’re harassed by a Facebook user, or if your business is defamed by a Yelp reviewer, you might be able to sue the harasser or the reviewer, assuming you know his or her identity, but don’t bother suing Facebook or Yelp. They’re probably immune. That immunity is what enabled American tech firms to become far more than producers of content (the online versions of newspapers, say, or company websites) and to harness the energy and creativity of hundreds of millions of individual users. The most popular sites on the web—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Reddit, Wikipedia, Amazon—depend in part or in whole on user-generated content…

Because of section 230, the U.S. was able to cultivate online companies in ways that other countries—even countries in the developed world—could not….American law’s “internet exceptionalism,” as it’s known, is the source of mind-blowing technological innovation, unprecedented economic opportunity and, a great deal of human pain. The book chronicles the plights of several people who found themselves targeted or terrorized by mostly anonymous users… Each of them sued the internet service providers or websites that facilitated these acts of malice and failed to do anything about them when alerted. And each lost—thanks to the immunity afforded to providers by Section 230.

Has the time come to delete the section?

Excerpt from Barton Swaim, ‘The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet’ Review: Protecting the Providers, WSJ, Aug. 19, 2019

Out-of-Fashion: Aggressive Tax Planning

In December 2019, Royal Dutch Shell voluntarily published its revenue, profit, taxes and other business details in each of 98 countries. The disclosure aligns with a drive by the energy company, which often attracts criticism from environmental activists, to present itself as forward-thinking, transparent and socially-minded.  That didn’t stop the information feeding a predictable host of headlines in the U.K., where the company is partly based, that it didn’t pay taxes in the country (because of losses carried forward and tax refunds). In the U.S., Shell accrued $137 million of tax—a rate of 8%.  This kind of detailed reporting is required by tax authorities in about 100 countries including the U.S. since 2017, based on rules agreed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, but it is rarely made public.

Companies that don’t jump may soon be pushed. Economy ministers from European Union countries are considering a proposal that would require all large companies with total revenue of more than €750 million ($834 million) operating in the bloc to publish the information annually. The Global Reporting Initiative, an organization that establishes sustainability standards, recently agreed to include a similar requirement. Greater transparency could also spur reform efforts and reduce incentives for complex tax arrangements. Companies, investors and states all agree that it is best to find a global solution to the problem of aggressive tax planning.

Excerpts from Rochelle Toplensky, Beginning of the End of Tax Secrecy, WSJ, Dec. 20, 2019

How to Pull off an Economic Coup: China in Guinea

The Simandou mine is a large iron mine located in the Simandou mountain range of southern Guinea, Simandou represents one of the largest iron ore reserves in Guinea and in the world, having estimated reserves of 2.4 billion tonnes of ore grading 65% iron meta. Since November 2019, Simandou is owned by a Chinese consortium: SMB, a joint-venture which includes Winning Shipping, a Singaporean maritime firm, UMS, a Guinean-French logistics company, and Shandong Weiqiao, a big Chinese aluminium producer. The entity, in which Guinea’s government holds a 10% stake, will pay $15bn to develop the site, build a new deepwater port and a 650km railway to link the two.

The successful bid is a coup for SMB, which is barely known outside the west African nation. The private joint-venture keeps its finances close to its chest but Bob Adam, an expert on mining in Guinea, reckons that after taxes, royalties and operating costs smb is making about $800m profit a year. “They are now the most significant economic enterprise in Guinea,” he says—and the only one among the world’s biggest bauxite producers with a direct link to China.

A shift into iron ore presents challenges. Building a port and a railway through the country’s malaria-infested forest will take years and could cost much more than the estimated $10bn. Also, the Boké region has been plagued by riots. Many local residents are angered by lack of access to clean water or health care. But China is keen on Simandou’s high-grade iron ore, which emits less pollution when processed.It also wants to lock in supply

Galvanised:  SMB Winning pays $15bn for rights to Guinea’s iron mountain, Economist, Dec. 7, 2019

.

The Jihadist Mafia: Controlling the Gold of Sahel

Burkina Faso is struggling to contain a fast-growing jihadist insurgency. Along with Mali and Niger, it has become the main front line against terrorists in the Sahel, a dry strip of land that runs along the edge of the Sahara. This year alone the conflict has killed more than 1,600 people and forced half a million from their homes in Burkina Faso….A worrying new trend is a battle by jihadists and other armed groups to take control of the region’s gold rush.

Although gold has long been mined in the region…it has boomed in recent years with the discovery of shallow deposits that stretch from Sudan to Mauritania. International mining companies have invested as much as $5bn in west African production over the past decade, but the rush has also lured hundreds of thousands of unsophisticated “artisanal” miners. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO, reckons that more than 2m people are involved in small-scale mining in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In total they dig up 40-95 tonnes of gold a year, worth some $1.9bn-4.5bn.

Artisanal Mining’s Claustrophobic Conditions

This rush—in a region where states are already weak and unable to provide security—has sucked in a variety of armed groups and jihadists, including the likes of Ansar Dine and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara…The jihadists probably have direct control of fewer than ten mines…But they have influence over many more. In some areas artisanal miners are forced to pay “taxes” to the jihadists. In others, such as Burkina Faso’s Soum province, the miners hire jihadists to provide security… Other armed groups such as ethnic militias are also in on the bonanza and collect cash to guard mines. International mining firms may also be funding the jihadists by paying ransoms for abducted employees or “protection” money to keep mining, according to a study published by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.

For the moment much of Burkina Faso’s artisanal production is sneaked into Togo… Togo does not produce much gold domestically but it sent more than 12 tonnes of gold to Dubai in 2016. Gold is also taken out of the Sahel through major airports in hand luggage. 

The resource curse: How west Africa’s gold rush is funding jihadists, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

Stopping GreenWashing

The EU wants to revolutionise the world of green finance. Brussels officials, MEPs and member states are currently trying to thrash out plans for a gold standard in green investment they hope will unleash tens of millions of euros of private money to fund the transition to a more sustainable world.   The project has a classically boring Brussels name — the “taxonomy” for sustainable activities — but the implications are potentially transformative. The EU wants to become the first supranational regulator to write rules that banks and funds will have to comply with when they claim to launch “green” products or investments.  As it stands, there is no global benchmark to judge just how green a financial product is. Funds and banks can sell and label sustainable finance products without an independent arbiter checking if reality meets the hype. The point of the EU’s work is to stamp out this so-called “greenwashing”…

Perhaps the most sensitive issue of all is how to handle nuclear energy. France — which has big nuclear business interests — doesn’t want the taxonomy to stigmatise nuclear as a “brown” technology. Other member states, led by Germany, want it excluded from being green, as do the MEPs. 

Excerpts from  Mehreen Khan, The Green Gold Standard, FT, Nov. 11, 2019

The Sand Industry: Opaque, Illegal, Unsustainable

Malaysia, Singapore’s biggest source for sea sand, has banned the export of the commodity, according to officials in Kuala Lumpur, a move that traders said could complicate the island-state’s ambitious expansion plans on reclaimed land.  Those plans include the development of the Tuas mega port, slated to be the world’s biggest container terminal. Singapore has increased its land area by a quarter since independence in 1965, mostly by using sand to reclaim coastal areas.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, who came to power in a shock election last year, imposed a ban on all sea sand exports on October 3, 2018… Endie Shazlie Akbar, Mahathir’s press secretary, confirmed that the government had put a stop to sand exports last year. However, he denied that it was aimed at curbing Singapore’s expansion plans, saying it was a move to clamp down on illegal sand smuggling….Two traders importing sand to Singapore, who both asked not to be named, said the commodity is becoming scarcer and driving Singapore to source sand from as far as India, which would push up costs. Shipping is the biggest single cost in acquiring sand.The traders added Singapore has been stockpiling sand in recent years which could provide a buffer against any immediate bottleneck in supplies.

The sand industry is opaque with no international price index, making it difficult to gauge the financial impact of a ban by Malaysia.  Sea sand is mostly used for land reclamation, while river sand is a core component in constructions materials like cement.

Singapore imported 59 million tonnes of sand from Malaysia in 2018, at a cost of $347 million, according to United Nations Comtrade data, which is based on information provided by individual countries’ customs offices. That accounted for 97% of Singapore’s total sand imports in the year by volume, and 95% of Malaysia’s global sand sales.The data does not distinguish between types of sand.  When Indonesia banned exports to Singapore in 2007, citing environmental concerns, it caused a “sand crisis” in the city-state that saw building activity almost come to a halt. Singapore has since bolstered its stockpiles.

Unsustainable sand dredging disrupts sediment flows and fishing grounds, destroying livelihoods and polluting water sources in some of the poorest communities in Asia.  But Singapore criticized Indonesia for allegedly using the ban as leverage in negotiations over an extradition treaty and border delineation.

River Dredging for Extraction of Sand

Excerpts from Fathin Ungku, Rozanna Latiff , Exclusive: In blow to Singapore’s expansion, Malaysia bans sea sand exports, Reuters, July 2, 2019

Why a Dumb Internet is Best

Functional splintering [of the internet] is already happening. When tech companies build “walled gardens”, they decide the rules for what happens inside the walls, and users outside the network are excluded…

Governments are playing catch-up but they will eventually reclaim the regulatory power that has slipped from their grasp. Dictatorships such as China retained control from the start; others, including Russia, are following Beijing. With democracies, too, asserting their jurisdiction over the digital economy, a fragmentation of the internet along national lines is more likely. …The prospect of a “splinternet” has not been lost on governments. To avoid it, Japan’s G20 presidency has pushed for a shared approach to internet governance. In January 2019, prime minister Shinzo Abe called for “data free flow with trust”. The 2019 Osaka summit pledged international co-operation to “encourage the interoperability of different frameworks”.

But Europe is most in the crosshairs of those who warn against fragmentation…US tech giants have not appreciated EU authorities challenging their business model through privacy laws or competition rulings. But more objective commentators, too, fear the EU may cut itself off from the global digital economy. The critics fail to recognise that fragmentation can be the best outcome if values and tastes fundamentally differ…

If Europeans collectively do not want micro-targeted advertising, or artificial intelligence-powered behaviour manipulation, or excessive data collection, then the absence on a European internet of services using such techniques is a gain, not a loss. The price could be to miss out on some services available elsewhere… More probably, non-EU providers will eventually find a way to charge EU users in lieu of monetising their data…Some fear EU rules make it hard to collect the big data sets needed for AI training. But the same point applies. EU consumers may not want AI trained to do intrusive things. In any case, Europe is a big enough market to generate stripped, non-personal data needed for dumber but more tolerable AI, though this may require more harmonised within-EU digital governance. Indeed, even if stricter EU rules splinter the global internet, they also create incentives for more investment into EU-tailored digital products. In the absence of global regulatory agreements, that is a good second best for Europe to aim for.

Excerpts from Martin Sandbu,  Europe Should Not be Afraid of Splinternet,  FT, July 2, 2019