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Taxing goes digital: what the new 5% VAT on e-commerce means

E-commerce is doing well in Bangladesh. Digital Bangladesh is truly upon us, and everyone is busy digging the fruits of our latest gold rush. Inside sources indicate that e-commerce is growing at an astounding rate of 40%, currently maintaining a market size of 2000 crore BDT (23.612 Million USD). That’s a very, very good growth rate. In fact, it’s not just very good; it’s almost too good to be true. Perhaps that is part of the reason a new e-commerce VAT is being proposed by Finance Minister AMA Muhith. The proposed measure, effective from July 1, will exact 5% tax from e-commerce businesses.

A similar measure is being separately implemented for ride-sharing services such as Uber and Pathao, which will also be levied with 5% VAT. On the other hand, the corporate tax rate ceiling on traditional businesses has been lowered by 2.5% from 42.5% to 40%. “Due to advances in ICT, digital and virtual businesses are fast replacing conventional business,” Muhith stated while declaring the budget last Thursday. “To keep up with these changes, we need radical reform in our tax system.”

It should be noted that this measure is a follow-up to a previous attempt to levy tax on e-commerce for the 2015-2016 budget. Then, Muhith proposed a 4% VAT that was quickly withdrawn under pressure from concerned stakeholders.

From a taxation perspective, it seems logical to levy a single digit tax rate on a fast-growing industry. In fact, if the 40% growth rate holds true, then our e-commerce industry is growing more than twice as fast as India’s e-commerce industry. India’s e-commerce ecosystem currently has a mammoth market cap of 17 billion USD as of 2017, and a projected cumulative annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29.57% for the next 10 years. In comparison, if Bangladesh’s e-commerce industry continues to grow at a 40% CAGR, then it will have a market cap of 682 million USD by 2028.

From a capacity viewpoint, there is ample space for such meteoric growth. An estimated 2 million shoppers buy from popular e-commerce sites such as Daraz and Kiksha- in addition to using food delivery services such as Foodpanda and Hungry Naki- on a daily basis. However, this is simply 2.33% of the total number of active internet connections in Bangladesh (85.9 million). This number, in turn, will only grow as internet penetration increases with the expansion of 4G network and services.

Buyers, sellers and platform operators, however, are unlikely to greet this proposed measure with much enthusiasm. At the moment, e-commerce sales mostly take place in low-cost categories which are highly price sensitive. A price hike of 5% is negligible for upper-middle class urbanites in Dhaka, but it can be a deal breaker for cash-strapped bargain hunters. They can switch to smaller e-commerce sellers who undercut the market prices, or simply opt for brick and mortar purchases.

From a consumer perspective, a higher sales tax seems counter-intuitive. While e-commerce buying is highly convenient, we also suffer trade-offs in terms of waiting time, shipping cost and uncertainty over product quality and authenticity.

E-commerce is a godsend for those who hate shopping, but for those who love it- such as yours truly- e-commerce is still an imperfect substitute. A lower sales tax, which translates to a lower overall price tag compared to a physical purchase, is one of the panaceas which make swallowing the e-commerce pill easier. For e-commerce platforms, the mechanics of processing the new VAT paperwork can seem like a nightmare on its own. According to an insider, the largest e-commerce platforms process an average of 3000 orders per day. That means, on a monthly basis, each operator will have to process an average of 90,000 orders per month. VAT paperwork involves the processing of 5 official documents per order. Thus, 450,000 documents will need to be processed per month.

Return policies and discounts are an accepted norm in the industry. However, with a range of 5000-8000 returns per month, the amount of paperwork that needs to be processed, and then unprocessed, is incomprehensible for the current workforce. Whole new departments will need to be created simply for dealing with the extra paperwork. Not to mention all the money flowing to and fro between the buyer, seller, platform operator and eventually, the exchequer.

The proposed VAT, it should be noted, is still one-third of the standard VAT rate (15%). If the rate doesn’t increase in the foreseeable future, there is a possibility that consumers and sellers alike will adjust to the 5% rate and business will continue as usual. The Government can thus comfortably lay claim to 9.9 Crore BDT (1.18 Million USD) worth of tax revenue in this fiscal year, with hopes to collect a total of 289 Crore BDT over the next 10 years.

That’s a lot of money, indeed.

bKash’s app is a hit – but what’s next?

bKash is the undisputed leader in Bangladesh’s MFS industry. bKash’s new app may continue that trend, with 2 million downloads since its launch. The app, designed with assistance from foreign players such as Ant Financial, bodes well for industry and consumers alike.

Equipped with a pleasant interface, the bKash app simplifies mobile transactions. It takes 5 steps to transfer money through the app, compared to the 8 steps it takes with the USSD system. QR code integration is another welcome addition. Furthermore, the app is cheaper, as it bypasses the 7% telco charge required with USSD.

Looking towards the future

While bKash’s app is a move in the right direction, some questions come to mind when you view the app from a consumer’s point of view. To be specific, a digital consumer’s point of view.

In Bangladesh, we can categorize digital consumers into two broad categories: information seekers and decision makers. Information Seekers go online mostly for product and services information. Decision Makers, meanwhile, spend a significant amount of time online. They are open to e-commerce buying, usually low-cost items such as clothing and phone accessories. Sales of high-value electronics and furniture are usually sparse, but peak during discount-heavy events such as Black Friday.

According to LightCastle Partners, the Information Seekers (74%) outnumber the Decision Makers (26%) on a 3:1 ratio. This supports bKash’s long-standing communications strategy, which focuses heavily on relaying factual information such as cashback offers and usage instructions.

Who are the decision makers?

Decision makers are innovators and early adopters. They stand in line for the newest iPhone launch. They were instrumental in building the userbase for Uber and Pathao when these giants started in Bangladesh.

It is likely, dear reader, that you are a decision maker too. You are interested, perhaps in wearables, and have tried out the Mi Band 2, if not bought it.

If you are male, you are interested not only in smartphones, but also accessories such as headphones. These aren’t just normal headphones. You know what noise cancellation means, and what audio drivers are. You look for good deals just as much as trophy buys.

If you belong to the fairer sex, perhaps you buy books from Facebook pages. You may have a healthy interest in chic accessories such as tote bags and scented candles from trendy vendors such as MIB and Newton’s Archive. You follow Youtube influencers for makeup tips and have tried your hand at tutorials of your own. You are an avid traveler, saving all year for vacations at Nepal, Thailand or Singapore.

How can bKash help enhance your lifestyle?

If you are Decision Maker, you want more from a mobile wallet app than simple money transfer and store features. Here are some of the ways it can try, based on international best practices:

  • Payments Integration with Social Media: Facebook has its own payment gateway, as does WeChat. This is necessary, even though it’s easy to send money to your friends via the bKash app.

Imagine this scenario: you are planning to see a Marvel film with ten friends and need to collect cash for the tickets. You send a bKash prompt in the thread that asks the participants to pay money. Most of them comply, because it’s easy, convenient and doesn’t require them to get out of Messenger.

As it stands, however, you need to switch to the bKash app, tap the transfer money option, and then input your friends’ numbers, one by one. That’s already five steps more than you need with Facebook integration. Don’t forget, you also have to repeat the whole process ten times.

It doesn’t have to be Facebook, per se. It can be Whatsapp, or even Viber. Anything that the Digital Youth are familiar and comfortable with.

  • Become Your Personal Finance Advisor: Zuckerberg may have his hands on all your personal data, including Murad Takla texts and terrible teenage photos. But you still trust him more than that sleazy teller at your local bank because you feel like he’s not telling the full story about your financial condition.

With apps that use financial advisory and analytics, it’s easy to have a bird’s eye view of all your financial activities at your beck and all. I use an app called Money Manager that displays real time analytics of my wallet and bank balances. It has helped me increase my savings by over 60% in the last year.

  • Cross-functional Integration with IoT devices: The Internet of Things phenomena is no more academic. We are living in it. Obvious examples of applications include Google Home and Amazon Echo. These devices are using soft AI that’s advancing rapidly. Amazon Echo can already order items from Amazon if you authorize it to do so.

What’s to say, we can’t do the same with bKash in the future, to order from Daraz? You don’t need to own an expensive speaker to take advantage of these features. Most Android phones support Google Assistant, which is the most advanced and reliable voice assistant this side of Alexa.

  • Payments Integration with Your Favorite Vendors and Artists: This is not about just Uber, or HungryNaki. Or that sixteenth carsharing knockoff that barged into your newsfeed three days ago.

It’s about that tasteful painter, studying undergrad, who creates personalized notebooks upon request. It’s about that underground band, whose musical brilliance is off the charts, but who are still struggling to make ends meet.

It’s about you, if you have ever tried freelancing full time, or making money out of your hobby.

What bKash can do, is create customized QR codes for such vendors. It can also create Small Entrepreneurs or Aspiring Artist programs. This way, the brand can tap into the pulse of these unique cultures, understanding their stories and helping to empower them.

  • Integration with Traditional Banking Services: Fintech is not the enemy of traditional banking; rather, the two are partners. Many millennials still prefer bank accounts, debit cards and credit cards of their own. However, we often put off acquiring them, because the process seems boring and complicated.

bKash, a subsidiary of BRAC bank, can smartly address this situation. It can fill the information gap by using short clips (5-10 seconds) that explain the benefits of these financial instruments. To invite action, bKash can transfer interested users to BRAC’s website, where they can avail these services through using referrals.

What’s next?

We hope you are as excited about some of these ideas as we are. Unfortunately, the local ecosystem cannot yet support such developments. Good progress is being made; then again, the consumer hardly cares for such news.

We want awesome stuff, and we want it now. bKash, you are good. Maybe even great. But you can be fantastic. Let us know when you get there. We will post, blog and tweet about it to high heaven.

Net Neutrality: what it is and how it affects us

“Treating all content equally online is key to individual empowerment, democracy and economic growth. But the FCC is threatening to take that away”- Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee is the father of World Wide Web, in effect the father of all things internet. And this was what he said about FCC repealing Net Neutrality, a hot topic issue spiraling the news cycles for the last couple of years. So when the creator is worried about its creation’s wellbeing and the oncoming lack of it, it begs the question- FCC who? Net Neutrality what? And why should I care? My objective today is just that – to answer these questions and share an understanding about a prominent threat to our digital freedom looming over us. Because whether it is checking your emails while stuck in Dhaka traffic, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram posts on your phone, or watching YouTube or Netflix videos at home—all of these are likely to be influenced by decisions made far away from you, and affecting you nonetheless.

Let’s get into Net Neutrality first. And who better to explain it than Tim Berners-Lee himself- “Net neutrality is the fundamental principle that all content should be treated equally online. It’s what ensures those millions of local businesses can compete on an equal footing with corporate giants. It’s what stops Internet and cable providers from slowing down services for those who don’t pay a premium, or blocking content that doesn’t boost their own bottom lines.”

Whether it is checking your emails while stuck in Dhaka traffic, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram posts on your phone, or watching YouTube videos at home—all of these are likely to be influenced by decisions made far away from you, and affecting you nonetheless.

Let me illustrate this with a familiar analogy. Consider an apartment building with a handful of tenants. They share a single water supply line to all of their apartments without any restrictions. And they definitely do not want someone else deciding what, how much, or when the water will be delivered. Can you imagine getting your water later than someone else living in the same building just because they are paying a higher rent? Net neutrality rules are a guarantee that others cannot decide this for you. These rules ensure that Nahian from Dhaka visiting google.com using a specific Internet Service Provider (ISP) will not be treated any differently than Nusaybah browsing yahoo.com while using a different ISP during her weekend trip in Chittagong. It means your ISP cannot make a deal with HBO so that you can watch Game of Thrones in High Definition (HD) but have to pay extra to do the same with Netflix’s Stranger things. Thus ultimately net neutrality is about fairness and equality on the internet.

Sadly we already have something similar actively trying to circumvent Net Neutrality in Bangladesh. Facebook’s Free Basics service allows Robi subscribers to browse Facebook for free. Using Facebook’s Free Basics or its Internet.org service gives you a walled version of the internet in several countries. It is a version of the internet that Facebook controls—where it sets and enforces rules as it chooses. Even Google is working on its own version. This is not giant corporations paying their due in the form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), rather pushing their own services and limiting choices for the masses.

Now what logic could work for this seemingly outright unethical approach to controlling the internet? Apparently it is efficiency. The argument is that removing rules and regulations will allow companies to innovate, come up with new ideas- like Facebook’s Free Basics- and make the world better. But these giant corporations are not benevolent entities. They are bound to put a profitable number at the yearly report for the shareholders’ meeting and the repeal of these protections would mean they are free to do so without ever batting an eye at the consequences. But at the end of the day, the regulatory power to ensure this never happens is not on our hands. This is where the FCC comes in.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent agency of the United States government and regulates interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. It is there that the blueprint to repeal of Net Neutrality has been conjured under the chairman of FCC, Ajit Pai. Pai was appointed as such by the Trump Administration on October, 2017. A vocal proponent for the repeal of Net Neutrality, Pai now had executive authority over such matters. He wasted no time voting to repeal Net Neutrality last December. Through a frankly surprising string of events, we are here at a point where a senate vote happened which went in favor to not repeal Net Neutrality. While it seemed this regulation was all but dead, it seems it may have some fight left in it. But its future is uncertain and dependent on future political proceedings.

So now the question remains, what can we do? How do we contribute to something that is happening thirteen thousand kilometers away from us? The answer is easy. Make some noise. Use the tool that they are working so hard to control- internet. In all the social media platforms from Reddit to Tumblr and from Twitter to Facebook, support is pouring in from all over the world in favor of Net Neutrality . Join in that wave. Hit the FCC website so hard with feedback that it crashes. The freedom of speech is our greatest weapon. If we don’t protect it while it is free and fair, next time we might have pay for the right to protest.

Moving out of your parents’ house in Dhaka – worth the challenge?

Cover illustration: Fahim Anzoom Rumman (botagainsthumanity)

The culture and societal structure of a south east Asian country is vastly different from almost anywhere else in the world. Bangladesh’s society, as much as it has been westernized in the past few decades, still wants to control its children up until the ripe old age of thirty or so. This creates a kind of dissonance with people who, like me, have primarily consumed Western pop-culture and have a sense of individualism not comparable to older generations.

I like to pride myself as one of the more self-dependent guys around. By 2016, I had gotten tired of being under the thumb of my parents and my older brother, who at this point was the primary economic force of the family. By this point I was also suffering from a bout of depression, and one of the reasons for it was I didn’t really share a familial bond with my family any more. I would frequently find myself locked in the tiny hole in the wall that was supposed to be my room, and not talking to anyone in the family.

This would take a toll on my mental health as 2016 is the year I still think of as the worst of my life. By the end of the year, I was fed up with the lack of freedom I had. I’m not badmouthing my family because I know they did what they thought was right and did nothing worse than your average Bangladeshi parent. With that being said, however, I realized that I needed a similar level of independence that American or Canadian children enjoy after they turn 18. This is why, at the age of 24 in 2017, I decided to move out. I wanted a life of my own, one where I might have to work like a Russian serf during the reign of Ivan the terrible, but at least I’d be free.

And boy was moving out hard. I moved out with no more than one luggage and my PC, and I was still exhausted. The most difficult parts were making sure none of the luggage goes missing. However, that was only day one of the rest of my life. Many hardships would follow. Below I will be listing them in a fashion that makes it easy for the average reader to skim through.

  • The toughest thing about living on your own is cleaning. Unless you’re really into cleaning stuff, it will be the biggest pain in your new life. After all, I’d wager not many like to come back home, after a whole day of toiling at the university and the office, to get to fixing up the house. It certainly was the case for me, as my friends started to call my sweet pad a junkyard. Admittedly, it had more junk than most garbage trucks.
  • Another massive issue you’ll face after moving out is chores like cooking or laundry. At the end of the day, if you’re a Bangladeshi kid of twenty something years that comes from a relatively well-off family, you will probably know nothing about doing chores. However, if you move out of your parents’ home, you will need to learn these life skills as quickly as possible. The bills can also stack up so you have to be careful to not overspend- or else you may not have a roof to sleep under the following month.
  • There is also a bit of a societal problem. Neighbors will gossip about you, the caretaker of the building you live in will spread rumors and many may give you a cold stare. This is usually because these people didn’t get to do what you did when they were your age. Not to mention that many people simply have nothing else to do. Not many in this country can accept the fact that being independent enough to move out is a good thing and not a reason to be suspicious. Best way to deal with this is to ignore it altogether.

  • The most obvious challenges are the bills that you will have to pay at the end of each month. If you’re thinking about moving out because you’ve been inspired by my article, then bless you for letting me influence your decisions. However, it will take a surprising amount of money to make it on your own. You’ll be looking to take an apartment in places where rent is cheap. My first apartment was in Rayerbazar, and it cost 8500 TK to live there, bills not included. If you’re anything like me, the electric bills will consist of a PC, a fridge and a couple of fans and lights, which brings the electric bills to around 500 TK only. A good broadband connection might set you back and depending on the area of Dhaka you have chosen, internet bills may reach up to a cool couple of grand. Along with food and other miscellaneous costs, you’ll roughly need a monthly income of at least 20,000 to be able to live fairly comfortably. If you can’t be bothered to do your own chores, then that minimum goes up by a couple of grand. An overall monthly wage above 25,000 TK will let you live quite comfortably.
  • Don’t fret if you don’t have that kind of money. There is always the option of sharing an apartment with your buddies. This brings down your costs severely. Personally, it is not for me. As I’ve already stated before, I’m quite independent minded and I would like to retain the privacy I have.

Although there are many challenges to moving out, the feeling of freedom that you have once you do it makes everything worth it. Well, it does for me at least. You may prefer a more comfortable life and being able to order maids around, but that’s not the life for me. I’ve always been an odd one out, and I have rarely seen anyone who has my kind of sense of individualism, but if you happen to like being free regardless of how much hard work you have to put in, moving out and getting your own apartment might be the thing for you.

Psychological approach to shattering glass ceilings – Ashna Chowdhury

‘Feminism’ is a divisive topic worldwide. In Bangladesh, one can argue that it is still a slogan for brands, an illusion in the name of progress that is chanted decade after decade. Yet, a lot of change is needed across every sector to level the playing field for women across the country. Ashna Chowdhury believes that a change is needed, not only in infrastructure but on a psychological level.

“We live in a very convoluted system,” she comments. “We quantify change on a macro level, but it also needs to happen on a micro level: a psychological level, a behavioural level.” While Bangladesh is lauded as a shining example in women leadership, especially in politics, there are light years to cross for equality to be achieved for women in terms of opportunities.

Ashna Chowdhury believes that a part of the solution lies within every woman. Every woman individually holds the power to transform her circumstances, given she has attained emotional well-being. “Well-being is the foundation of a meaningful and impactful life,” she adds.

She is a counselor and a leadership & well-being specialist. Trained in San Francisco, Ashna is a certified Integral Coach. She is also the founder of Thrive, a platform that provides consultation and training to women on leadership and wellbeing from a psychological perspective, delving into everyday scenarios, internal reactions, attitudes and behaviours.

Aashna Chowdhury - HiFi Public
A snap from a workshop hosted by Ashna Chowdhury for high school girls at US Embassy’s American Centre, Dhaka.

She recently conducted workshops with IFC (International Finance Corporation), and ILO (International Labor Organization), training female garments workers on topics such as Leadership, Confidence Building, Setting Boundaries, and Self Limiting Behaviours. She also conducts workshops in the capital for working women, on a variety of insightful and relevant topics such as stress management, emotional intelligence, and communication.

“Thrive Women is a network of extra-ordinary women who live with purpose, and lead with clarity,” says Ashna. The initiative focuses on empowering young women through mentorship, through providing financial literacy paving their path to their potential in the 21st century, to level the game for them as they embark on their careers, or a path towards entrepreneurship.

However, this journey was not an easy one for Chowdhury. Hailing from a successful career managing research teams for BRAC Development Institute, she realized the strong, successful woman this society expects one to be is still not enough. “When my father passed away, my world came to a standstill,” says Ashna. “In this society, the capable, empowered woman is a lone wolf. And that is an unhealthy narrative. I was once that successful woman, but my success had not prepared me for the loss of a loved one. I took some time to let life fall back into perspective and I analyzed myself at the time, and then I realized that this unhealthy narrative of a robotic, lone wolf successful woman needs to be rewritten for everyone. Negative emotions are important, and women here need to learn how to channel them in a healthy way.”

A post workshop group photo from Thrive Women’s ‘Tame Your Inner Critic’

Ashna would go on to complete her MA in Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Coming across the works of Carl Jung, Ashna would be deeply influenced by the concept of individuation, or the process of one finding their true self; she felt it could propel every Bangladeshi woman towards her potential. “In my sessions, it is my priority to ensure that by the end, you will have resilience, and you will radiate an undeniable sense of purpose, which is the foundation for success.”

“My most favourite thing about this job is that the typical woman who usually comes to my sessions enter with a mix of curiosity and suspicion,” she adds “and leaves with a sense of relief, and of being seen and heard.” There is a “hunger” for her training, with organizations across all sectors gradually coming to terms with the need to facilitate and empower women by eradicating age old infrastructural and psychological systems that favoured men over women. But organizations often don’t know that they need this.

Ashna Chowdhury and Thrive hosts numerous meet-ups and workshops throughout the year, with an upcoming session to be held on April 28th at Gourmet Bazaar, Banani. Find out more by following Thrive Women at: https://www.facebook.com/ThriveWomenLead

Zuckerberg and Facebook’s day of reckoning?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg found himself in the proverbial hot seat as he was grilled for a marathon 5 hour long hearing in front of the US Congress, as senators from the commerce and judiciary committees pelted questions regarding privacy, data mining, fake news, regulations and the social media giant’s involvement in the recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm with shady ties to the Russians.

If it sounds like a post-modernist spy film with slightly boring-action-yet-interesting-subplots, you’d be absolutely right.

If this image vaguely reminds you of Superman’s appearance in front of Congress in Dawn of Justice…you’re not alone. Minus the cape and the explody bits, of course.

On April 10th, Zuckerberg traded in his signature plan grey collarless shirt for a sharp suit, muted white shirt and a tie in the Facebook-shade-of-blue and appeared before a Congressional committee that seemed, over the course of the evening, appeared to be both blissfully unaware of the way Facebook collects and monetizes data as well as seemingly ready to ask the tough questions…that no one is really asking. With less than five minutes allotted to each member of the committee, the line of questioning that the 33 year old billionaire had to face barely scratched the surface of the overall problem, with barely any follow up questions – quite unlike the previous instances of the tech world clashing with government, like Bill Gates had to face in 1998.

Similar to the Gates hearing, however, Mark Zuckerberg was asked whether Facebook was a monopoly and actively engaging in anti-competitive practices, which the CEO took lightly and answered with “It doesn’t feel like it”. The floor made it somewhat clear that the committee members were concerned about the seemingly limitless power Facebook currently holds.

Some media outlets called the whole thing a “sham”, while others understood the need for such theatrics in calming an excited population and stock market – while Facebook’s shares were steadily falling before the hearing, the numbers stabilized and even climbed 4.5% afterwards. And while some of the questions might be seemingly hard-hitting on the surface, Zuckerberg’s responses were apologetic – a virulent mix of “I’m sorry”s and “We’re working on it”s.

Public apologies for data misuse – becoming quite common for Facebook and its young CEO.

In Facebook’s 14 years of existence, this seems to have become a cycle that they’ve nearly perfected – Facebook takes user data and either sells/distributes to third party advertisers and/or researchers/data miners, invariably gets caught, goes on a media apology tour and the world moves on with some good humoured meme and vine sharing. But now a line in the sand has been drawn – do not mess with the democratic process of elections. Cambridge Analytica’s data mining of nearly 87 million Facebook users with the help of researcher Aleksandr Kogan and alleged ties to the Donald Trump presidential campaign was an eye-opener – that social media is now plays an important enough role in the lives of people, enough to affect election results and who you’re likely to vote for.

So when the public audience at the hearing erupts into laughter following Zuckerberg’s “no” to a question fielded by Democrat Dick Durbin – “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” – it’s enough to make most people’s skin crawl. If there’s anything to take away from the hearing, it’s that people might care less about their data privacy than Facebook does.

Democrat Richard Blumenthal put the Facebook CEO under some amount of stress when he said, “We’ve seen the apology tours before. You have refused to acknowledge even an ethical violation to report this violation of the FTC consent decree. My reservation about your testimony today is that I don’t see how you can change your business model unless there are specific rules of the road. Your business model is to maximise profit over privacy.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by members of the media as he arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis.

Another senator pointed out how Zuckerberg’s second in command, Sheryl Sandberg, went on morning TV and talked about getting users to pay if they wanted to opt out of having their data shared with third parties, to which he gave yet another vague answer. Much of the hearing saw Zuckerberg deflecting questions and trying to run out the clock, while driving home Facebook’s mission statement of “connecting people and letting ideas foster”.

Republican Ted Cruz picked up on that and gave Zuckerberg an equally hard time about the “liberal bias” of Facebook’s team of content moderators, who are seemingly more prone to taking down conservative viewpoints like those of Christian evangelists than regulating liberals and their Planned Parenthood pages. To which Zuckerberg replied “Palo Alto is one of the most liberal places on earth”…forgetting, for a moment perhaps, that Facebook is as global an entity as any.

But liberal biases and vague answers aside, the young CEO was forced to clear out the Cambridge Analytica issue as much as he could. Zuckerberg initially claimed there was no scope for blocking Cambridge Analytica from being on Facebook in 2015 when their activities were first brought to light, as CA maintained no pages and was neither a developer nor an advertiser.

However, after taking some time to consult his team, Zuckerberg clarified:  “[From] what my understanding was … they were not on the platform, [they] were not an app developer or advertiser. When I went back and met with my team afterwards, they let me know that Cambridge Analytica actually did start as an advertiser later in 2015. So we could have in theory banned them then. We made a mistake by not doing so. But I just wanted to make sure that I updated that because I … I … I misspoke, or got that wrong earlier.”

Cambridge Analytica’s data mining of nearly 87 million Facebook users with the help of researcher Aleksandr Kogan and alleged ties to the Donald Trump presidential campaign was an eye-opener – that social media is now plays an important enough role in the lives of people, enough to affect election results and who you’re likely to vote for.

Senator Leahy took a line of questioning that struck close to home for South Asia: “… six months ago, I asked your general counsel about Facebook’s role as a breeding ground for hate speech against Rohingya refugees. Recently, U.N. investigators blamed Facebook for playing a role in inciting possible genocide in Myanmar. And there has been genocide there. You say you use A.I. to find this. This is the type of content I’m referring to. It calls for the death of a Muslim journalist. Now, that threat went straight through your detection systems, it spread very quickly, and then it took attempt after attempt after attempt, and the involvement of civil society groups, to get you to remove it.”

In response, Zuckerberg laid out a plan – “There are three specific things that we’re doing… hiring dozens of Burmese-language content reviewers, because hate speech is very language-specific…working with civil society in Myanmar to identify specific hate figures so we can take down their accounts…standing up a product team to do specific product changes in Myanmar and other countries that may have similar issues in the future to prevent this from happening.”

With the initial hearing ending on a note of regret and taking responsibility on Facebook’s part and Zuckerberg promising more involvement in finding the “right kind of regulation” that could work for what is essentially a social media monopoly, one thing is clear – there is a long way to go for Facebook in developing a mature, effective and trustworthy system that balances profitability with privacy, freedom of expression and accountability, and nearly everything in-between. Considering the role social media has begun to play in our daily lives, it’s vital that tech companies like Facebook get their act together and bridge the gaping chasms that they have unintentionally created.

5 times mainstream comics got diversity right

The opportune release of the very highly rated Black Panther has us all talking, isn’t inclusion and diversity in comic book/superhero movies rather overdue? With the topic in mind, over the past few years, diversity has become not a gimmick, but rather a necessity as more and more entertainment mediums are trying to embrace diversity more proactively. In myriad forms, executives at these major comic book publishers have pushed this agenda through a) turning an existing comic book character into a minority group (i.e, turning Iceman from X-men gay), or b) creating and bringing new, diverse characters into the existing comic book continuity (i.e, having a new female character take the mantle of Thor).

Most of these decisions were met with a lukewarm response. However, occasionally, DC, Marvel, or Image would hit a goldmine. Exploring a minority protagonist or cast allowed publishers to add a robust dimension to their storytelling, as well as benefits for character building. While there are numerous diversity characters in the world of comics, here are five times mainstream comics got diversity right.

Midnighter

“I’d know him anywhere. He moves like jazz” comments the badass, homosexual, ultra-violent vigilante, about Nightwing on Tim Seeley/Tom King’s run on Grayson for DC New 52. Midnighter was co-created by the highly acclaimed comic book writer Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Planetary), for DC’s imprint ‘Wildstorm comics’.

Although Midnighter is not the first LGBTQ superhero in comic books, he’s one of the first to be openly gay, and married to another gay character, Apollo.  Being more in the veins of The Punisher, Midnighter sadly had been relegated to the sidelines of DCU for much of his existence, but recently got his own series ‘Midnighter and Apollo’ as a part of DC Rebirth.

Batwoman

Another LGBT addition to our list, Batwoman got revamped for DC’s New 52 as a lesbian character. Mainstream comic book fans may be familiar with her recent appearance on a Batman animated film, Batman: Bad Blood.

Recently, during DC’s new 52 relaunch, DC Comics refreshed the character for modern audiences, with writer Marguerite Bennett (a queer themselves) writing the series, bringing a newfound LGBTQ sensitivity into the storytelling.

Lord Fanny

One of my personal all time favourite comic book characters. When Grant Morrison is writing, you know you’re in for a psychedelic joyride. A core cast member from the 1990’s comic, the Invisibles (basically the X-files meets the Matrix with a dash of 1984 on the highest quality DMT).

What can be trippier than badass Brazilian transvestite Shaman, drawing powers from a myriad elements of Mayan cosmology. Her gender identity and her traumatic past makes her a compelling character, and a formidable force within the Invisibles Universe.

Blade

Breaking into the mainstream in 1998 as a trilogy of superhero horror films directed masterfully by Guillermo Del Toro, Blade would pioneer what would later become the modern superhero movie boom at Hollywood. Although making his first appearance in comics in the 1970s, Blade was an iconic black character, a stand out among others such as Black Panther and Luke Cage.

What made Blade so compelling was how he handled, trapped between both worlds, being a vampire and retaining his humanity. A predicament not very different from what minority groups suffer. The acute identity crisis, the feeling of being neither here, or there.

Storm

One of the most iconic colored characters in memory, Ororo Munroe took the comic book world by storm, appearing as a member of the X-Men in 1975.

Hailing from a tormented past as a thief from the ghetto, to becoming the queen of a nation, Storm carved a niche for herself in the world of comics as one badass femme fatale. Being an Omega level mutant with command over weather, Storm has inspired numerous memorable comic book heroes and heroines over the years.

Honorable mentions: Spawn, Luke Cage, Miles Morales (Spider Man), the Mandarin (a formidable foe for Iron man, and considerably more interesting a character than his arch nemesis), Spawn.

Are there any diversity comic book characters that you feel deserves a mention? Please let us know!

Facebook rolls out updates to fight “fake news”

After several shocking revelations concerning Facebook sharing data with Cambridge Analytica, the social media giant has started rolling out an update that it tested last year as a means of curbing the tidal wave of “fake news”. Hopefully it will help build a credible base of information shared on Facebook, and reduce the influence of websites producing and distributing fake news.

By tapping on the [about this article, i] button on a news shared on Facebook, details about the website shared from and similar news appears. Scroll down and you will even find the regions where the news is getting shared from the most. It also shows who shared it – one of the crucial points of this new feature.

Initially the update appears to be giving context for the news that users share, but this new feature will help users recognize their Facebook friend’s views even more.

This clarifies how Facebook recognizes your behavioral patterns and builds a specific advertisement stream tailored for you. But this will shed more light on the people in your newsfeed who might be more prone to sharing fake news.

According to developers, the idea came from the “related articles” you can find whenever you interact with a news article on Facebook. In order for this feature to work, however, the authors of these stories have to have author tags implemented on their page.

The update is already available to everyone in the US and it’s expected to roll out worldwide in a few days.

Challenges of being a vegan in Bangladesh

One or another form of animal product is present in most of the popular foods in Bangladesh, be it biriyani, mishti, or doi fuchka, or the distinctly non-vegan or non-vegetarian menu at desi weddings. Just the thought of giving up any one of these for life seems unbearable to most Bengalis. Vegetarianism itself is a difficult feat to follow through here, considering the kinds of food items usually available at dawats and restaurants. For vegans living in Bangladesh, this journey is packed with ten times as many hindrances, but – as many a  successful vegan will tell – with sufficient perseverance, achievement is not only possible, but sweeter. Biplab Das is one such Bangladeshi vegan.

Image : Gemma Correll

While vegetarianism – where one can consume dairy products and eggs in their diet while avoiding meat – is more of a diet, veganism is its own lifestyle.

Veganism is the practice of abstaining from consuming all sorts of animal products, particularly in diet, and is associated with the philosophy of abnegation of any kind of harm to animals.

For Biplab, a follower of the Vedic philosophy, just the knowledge of the requirement of veganism in this philosophy was insufficient in strengthening his efforts to convert to veganism for four years. Biplab had considered going vegan several times since 2012, but what finally helped him stick to it was the renewed revelation of the core idea of the Vedic philosophy – to never cause violence to any animal. With the realization of the true essence of this ideology, helped achieved by a friend, turning to the vegan lifestyle was a simple choice for him, and he has been following it for two years now.

Image : kondratya

Like the adaptation of any other major life-altering philosophy, the beginning was awkward – not because of the diet itself, but the idea behind it. While family members resisted a little at the beginning, and the cultural practice of over-hospitality at dawats even hurt a few hosts when he refused to “try just a little bit of this non-vegan dish, it won’t count!”, those family members are now Biplab’s strongest supporters, and the same dawat hosts are now so understanding they even prepare special meals for him.

While vegetarianism – where one can consume dairy products and eggs in their diet while avoiding meat – is more of a diet, veganism is its own lifestyle.

The awkwardness of having to customize orders at every restaurant still lingers, and decent ready-made vegan meals are still unavailable at a lot of places, but having friends of the same lifestyle and learning to adapt has helped Biplab in seeing through this. With the help of a nutritionist, he started by creating a diet chart to ensure that his nutritional needs are still met. It’s an ongoing hassle to pick out the right items and go through every ingredient list to make sure it’s vegan – finding a suitable salad dressing took a whole year! With places like Unimart, Gourmet Bazaar, and even the food places near Hindu temples, it has become easier for Biplab to maintain his diet.

Photo : Nataliya Arzamasova / Shutterstock

Practicing veganism – or any kind of diet – purely for reasons of personal health can prove to be difficult – after all, who hasn’t retorted to just a small plateful of kachchi the day after vowing to go on a diet?

The real trick to sticking to this lifestyle is the acknowledgement, appreciation, and embracing of the core idea behind this lifestyle – that is, the abstinence from harming any animals.

Once the philanthropic element behind the philosophy is ingrained into one’s decision, nothing can sway them from the vegan lifestyle. Whether it is to convert to the vegan lifestyle or not, there are some beautiful lessons to be taken away from Biplab and other vegans living in the very meat-obsessed culture as is in Bangladesh – lessons of perseverance, strength, and core values. Theirs are the stories that teach us that the incredibility of spirit needed to achieve anything is always matched with an equally incredible feeling of accomplishment. As Biplab himself would tell, the only regret is not having started earlier. Be it veganism or anything else, to feel that way about any aspect of one’s life is truly the essence of fulfillment in life.