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When Facebook unveiled its new digital currency libra, it explicitly said the initiative was intended to address the problems faced by the world’s unbanked: the 1.7 billion people without a bank account. As well as facing inconvenience, these people generally pay over the odds for financial services like bank transfers or overdrafts.
This is a pretty big potential market for Facebook so it’s not surprising that it would target the opportunity. But could libra really transform access to financial services for those who are currently excluded? There are reasons to raise serious doubts.
Across the world, the main reasons people give for not holding a bank account is that they don’t have enough money, don’t see the need for an account, find it too expensive, or another family member already has one. Not having the right documentation is also a barrier, as is distrust in the financial system.
But the specific barriers to financial inclusion vary significantly by region and are usually a combination of social and economic factors. For instance, while cost is a big barrier in Latin America, lack of documentation is the big issue in Zimbabwe and Philippines.
This makes it difficult for any one intervention to be a solution to this huge group of people. Worryingly, the Facebook “white paper” that outlines libra does not really engage with these problems or say how it plans to overcome them.
People’s trust in institutions can be very important in influencing the extent to which they use their services, as I have found from my own work into microfinance, which I have presented at conferences but is yet to be published in an academic journal.
I have found that people are more likely to choose something familiar over something novel. Since libra will be a new currency relying on digital wallets and built on blockchain online ledger technology, it is not short of novelties. Inspiring trust is therefore likely to be a major challenge.
And simply signing someone up to an account – be it a bank account or a digital wallet – is only part of the financial inclusion challenge.
In India, 190m people still do not have bank accounts, but the percentage of the population who do have accounts has steadily increased to 80%. In 2017, however, nearly half of all bank accounts in the country had seen no activity over the whole of the previous year. One of the reasons is financial literacy, which remains low both in India and many other developing countries. Many people in India have said they are simply unaware of the different benefits of a bank account, such as overdraft facilities or credit schemes.
As many as 62% of the world’s unbanked have received only a primary-level education or less, and in poorer countries the proportion is almost certainly going to be higher. Expecting such people to make complex currency conversions into a new virtual currency is asking a lot.
In the first place, there is a need for financial literacy measures and initiatives aimed at motivating them to use the services available. Without this additional support, there is a strong risk that Facebook will boast large numbers of sign-ups but very low rates of transactions from the people who are most in need.
Only a few days since Facebook’s announcement, libra has faced strong pushback from regulators and policymakers around the world. There is much concern about this proposed shift of power from central banks to a private corporation.
But aside from questions about the ethics of data privacy or the creation of a supranational currency, libra faces an important practical question. On the one hand, it is not clear how a model such as libra, where there will presumably be little or no physical presence in many countries, would interact with and adhere to local regulations.
On the other hand, if it does conform to the local standards of each country, it is unclear how it will overcome challenges like signing people up and strict documentation requirements. Will it really be able to serve the unbanked better than local providers who are used to the challenges in that specific market already?
Entrepreneurs and businesses can either start with a problem and think of the best way to solve it; or they can start with a solution and find the biggest and best problem it might solve. I’m not convinced that libra is a good move in either direction. Facebook either has a huge amount of work to do to adapt its solution to fit the problem better, or it needs to redefine the problem that it is trying to fix.
A massive redevelopment of the old Royal Albert Dock in East London is transforming the derelict waterfront to a gleaming business district. The project, which started in June 2017, will create 325,000 square metres of prime office space – a “city within a city”, as it has been dubbed – for Asian finance and tech firms. Then, in 2018, authorities in Kampala, Uganda celebrated as a ferry on Lake Victoria was unloaded with goods from the Indian Ocean, onto a rail service into the city. This transport hub was the final part of the Central Corridor project, aimed at connecting landlocked Uganda to Dar es Salaam and the Indian Ocean.
Both of these huge projects are part of the US$1 trillion global infrastructure investment that is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s ambition to reshape the world economy has sparked massive infrastructure projects spanning all the way from Western Europe to East Africa, and beyond. The nation is engaging in what we, in our research, call “Silk Road urbanism” – reimagining the historic transcontinental trade route as a global project, to bring the cities of South Asia, East Africa, Europe and South America into the orbit of the Chinese economy.
By forging infrastructure within and between key cities, China is changing the everyday lives of millions across the world. The initiative has kicked off a new development race between the US and China, to connect the planet by financing large-scale infrastructure projects.
Amid this geopolitical competition, Silk Road urbanism will exert significant influence over how cities develop into the 21st century. As the transcontinental trade established by the ancient Silk Road once led to the rise of cities such as Herat (in modern-day Afghanistan) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan), so the BRI will bring new investment, technology, infrastructure and trade relations to certain cities around the globe.
The BRI is still in its early stages – and much remains to be understood about the impact it will have on the urban landscape. What is known, however, is that the project will transform the world system of cities on a scale not witnessed since the end of the Cold War.
Silk Road urbanism is highly selective in its deployment across urban space. It prioritises the far over the near and is orientated toward global trade and the connections and circulations of finance, materials, goods and knowledge. Because of this, the BRI should not only be considered in terms of its investment in infrastructure.
It will also have significance for city dwellers – and urban authorities must recognise the challenges of the BRI and navigate the need to secure investment for infrastructure while ensuring that citizens maintain their right to the city, and their power to shape their own future.
Developments in both London and Kampala highlight these challenges. In London, Chinese developer Advanced Business Park is rebuilding Royal Albert Dock – now named the Asian Business Port – on a site it acquired for £1 billion in 2013 in a much-criticised deal by former London mayor Boris Johnson. The development is projected to be worth £6 billion to the city’s economy by completion.
But the development stands in sharp contrast with the surrounding East London communities, which still suffer poverty and deprivation. The challenge will be for authorities and developers to establish trusting relations through open dialogue with locals, in a context where large urban redevelopments such as the 2012 Olympic Park have historically brought few benefits.
The creation of a third financial district, alongside Canary Wharf and the City of London, may benefit the economy. But it remains to be seen if this project will provide opportunities for, and investment in, the surrounding neighbourhoods.
The Ugandan capital Kampala is part of the Central Corridor project to improve transport and infrastructure links across five countries including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The project is financed through the government of Tanzania via a US$7.6 billion loan from the Chinese bank Exim.
The growth of the new transport and cargo hub at Port Bell, on the outskirts of Kampala, with standardised technologies and facilities for international trade, is the crucial underlying component for Uganda’s Vision2040.
This national plan alone encompasses a further ten new cities, four international airports, national high speed rail and a multi-lane road network. But as these urban transformations unfold, residents already living precariously in Kampala have faced further uncertainty over their livelihoods, shelter and place in the city.
During fieldwork for our ongoing research into Silk Road urbanism in 2017, we witnessed the demolition of hundreds of informal homes and businesses in the popular Namuwongo district, as a zone was cleared 30 metres either side of a rehabilitated railway track for the Central Corridor required.
As Silk Road urbanism proceeds to reshape global infrastructure and city spaces, existing populations will experience displacement in ways that are likely to reinforce existing inequalities. It is vital people are given democratic involvement in shaping the outcomes.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
Amid the ongoing Brexit standoff, one proposal that has been gaining traction and which MPs will now vote on in a series of indicative votes in parliament, has been the cross-party plan for a “Common Market 2.0”.
Superficially, the plan resolves a number of the challenges posed by Brexit, including the thorny issue of the Irish border and the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. But the plan – also known as Norway+ because it has similarities with the EU’s relationship with Norway – involves the UK compromising on a number of its current red lines, while at the same time requiring a fundamental revision of one of the EU’s existing free trade agreements.
One way to understand how a Common Market 2.0 might work – and how it would differ to other options on the table – is to look at one type of good that might move between countries. Say, cheese.
First, it’s important to establish the difference between a free trade agreement and a customs union. As a rule, tariffs are applied on the basis of where goods originate from. The EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, for example, means that you can import Canadian Avonlea cheese into the EU free from tariffs. However, the EU’s lack of an free trade agreement with the US means that American Monterey Jack cheese is charged at €221.20/100kg. If you first export Monterey Jack to Canada, and then from Canada to the EU it will still be chargeable, as the goods originated in the US. Under a free trade agreement, checks on where good originated – known as “rules of origin” checks – are still required.
A customs union is a more advanced form of trading relationship, where you agree not only to remove any tariffs on each other’s goods, but also to apply the same tariffs on goods originating from third countries. This means, for the purposes of the EU customs union, that Monterey Jack will be treated the same whether it is imported to Belgium or Bulgaria. Within a customs union it’s unnecessary to check from where goods originate when they cross a border as they will already have received the appropriate customs treatment.
The Common Market 2.0 idea is an attempt to reverse engineer the previous 25 years of EU integration, reverting the UK’s participation in the EU to the position before the Maastricht Treaty was agreed in 1992.
Under the plan, the UK would rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) of which it was a founding member prior to joining the European Economic Community. The UK would also accede to the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement with the EU. This is a two-pillared agreement between the EU, as well as three of the four EFTA members: Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, but not Switzerland. This is often known as the “Norway model”.
Such an approach would result in the UK adopting EU-EEA measures relating to the internal market, including the free movement of goods and services, and competition law. But the UK would no longer be subject to the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU, which would be replaced by the jurisdiction of the EFTA Court.
Under this approach, regulatory alignment is all but guaranteed, as standards would ultimately be agreed by the EU and EEA (of which the UK would be a member) – meaning that all cheese capable of being sold in the EU, be that French brie or Dutch edam, ought to be capable of being sold in the UK and vice versa.
What moves the Common Market 2.0 proposal beyond simply replicating the Norway model, however, is that it also involves the UK entering a customs union directly with the EU, thereby removing the need for rules of origin checks on the Irish border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Checks on cheese moving between Norway and Sweden are rare – but they do happen. By entering into a customs union with the EU such checks along the Northern Irish border would never be necessary.
The major stumbling block with Common Market 2.0, however, is that under the EFTA agreement it’s not currently possible for member states to enter into a customs union with other states – whether the EU or otherwise. So Norway cannot enter into a customs union directly with the EU, or the US, for example. If the UK were to seek this, it would require special treatment not only by the EU, but by EFTA as well – the political difficulties of which have been largely overlooked.
The Common Market 2.0 arrangement would also, controversially for many, involve the UK continuing with the free movement of persons. The key piece of legislation providing free movement rights for EU and EEA citizens – directive 2004/38 – was incorporated into EEA law in 2007.
One saving grace for the UK might be the joint declaration attached to that 2007 EEA decision that it cannot be the basis for the creation of political rights, and that the directive does not impinge upon immigration policy. This reflects the fact that the primary focus of EEA law is on economically active migrants, rather than EU citizens.
The Common Market 2.0 approach is therefore unlikely to be viable. Not only would it enrage the right wing of the Conservative Party, it would require agreement from the EU, the EEA and Switzerland. Given the difficulties the UK has had agreeing a deal with one trading bloc, trying to win over three – the EU, the EEA, and EFTA, as well a domestic audience – looks near-impossible.
I can still recall my surprise when a book by evolutionary biologist Peter Lawrence entitled “The making of a fly” came to be priced on Amazon at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping). While my colleagues around the world must have become rather depressed that an academic book could achieve such a feat, the steep price was actually the result of algorithms feeding off each other and spiralling out of control. It turns out, it wasn’t just sales staff being creative: algorithms were calling the shots.
This eye-catching example was spotted and corrected. But what if such algorithmic interference happens all the time, including in ways we don’t even notice? If our reality is becoming increasingly constructed by algorithms, where does this leave us humans?
Inspired by such examples, my colleague Prof Allen Lee and I recently set out to explore the deeper effects of algorithmic technology in a paper in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems. Our exploration led us to the conclusion that, over time, the roles of information technology and humans have been reversed. In the past, we humans used technology as a tool. Now, technology has advanced to the point where it is using and even controlling us.
We humans are not merely cut off from the decisions that machines are making for us but deeply affected by them in unpredictable ways. Instead of being central to the system of decisions that affects us, we are cast out in to its environment. We have progressively restricted our own decision-making capacity and allowed algorithms to take over. We have become artificial humans, or human artefacts, that are created, shaped and used by the technology.
Examples abound. In law, legal analysts are gradually being replaced by artificial intelligence, meaning the successful defence or prosecution of a case can rely partly on algorithms. Software has even been allowed to predict future criminals, ultimately controlling human freedom by shaping how parole is denied or granted to prisoners. In this way, the minds of judges are being shaped by decision-making mechanisms they cannot understand because of how complex the process is and how much data it involves.
In the job market, excessive reliance on technology has led some of the world’s biggest companies to filter CVs through software, meaning human recruiters will never even glance at some potential candidates’ details. Not only does this put people’s livelihoods at the mercy of machines, it can also build in hiring biases that the company had no desire to implement, as happened with Amazon.
In news, what’s known as automated sentiment analysis analyses positive and negative opinions about companies based on different web sources. In turn, these are being used by trading algorithms that make automated financial decisions, without humans having to actually read the news.
In fact, algorithms operating without human intervention now play a significant role in financial markets. For example, 85% of all trading in the foreign exchange markets is conducted by algorithms alone. The growing algorithmic arms race to develop ever more complex systems to compete in these markets means huge sums of money are being allocated according to the decisions of machines.
On a small scale, the people and companies that create these algorithms are able to affect what they do and how they do it. But because much of artificial intelligence involves programming software to figure out how to complete a task by itself, we often don’t know exactly what is behind the decision-making. As with all technology, this can lead to unintended consequences that may go far beyond anything the designers ever envisaged.
Take the 2010 “Flash Crash” of the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index. The action of algorithms helped create the index’s single biggest decline in its history, wiping nearly 9% off its value in minutes (although it regained most of this by the end of the day). A five-month investigation could only suggest what sparked the downturn (and various other theories have been proposed).
But the algorithms that amplified the initial problems didn’t make a mistake. There wasn’t a bug in the programming. The behaviour emerged from the interaction of millions of algorithmic decisions playing off each other in unpredictable ways, following their own logic in a way that created a downward spiral for the market.
The conditions that made this possible occurred because, over the years, the people running the trading system had come to see human decisions as an obstacle to market efficiency. Back in 1987 when the US stock market fell by 22.61%, some Wall Street brokers simply stopped picking up their phones to avoid receiving their customers’ orders to sell stocks. This started a process that, as author Michael Lewis put it in his book Flash Boys, “has ended with computers entirely replacing the people”.
The financial world has invested millions in superfast cables and microwave communications to shave just milliseconds off the rate at which algorithms can transmit their instructions. When speed is so important, a human being that requires a massive 215 milliseconds to click a button is almost completely redundant. Our only remaining purpose is to reconfigure the algorithms each time the system of technological decisions fails.
As new boundaries are carved between humans and technology, we need to think carefully about where our extreme reliance on software is taking us. As human decisions are substituted by algorithmic ones, and we become tools whose lives are shaped by machines and their unintended consequences, we are setting ourselves up for technological domination. We need to decide, while we still can, what this means for us both as individuals and as a society.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
Intentionally false news stories were shared more than 35m times during the 2016 US presidential election, with Facebook playing a significant role in their spread. Shortly after, the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that 50m Facebook profiles had been harvested without authorisation and used to target political ads and fake news for the election and later during the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
Though the social network admitted it had been slow to react to the issue, it developed tools for the 2018 US midterm elections that enabled Facebook users to see who was behind the political ads they were shown. Facebook defines ads as any form of financially sponsored content. This can be traditional product adverts or fake news articles that are targeted at certain demographics for maximum impact.
Now the focus is shifting to the 2019 European parliament elections, which will take place from May 23, and the company has introduced a public record of all political ads and sweeping new transparency rules designed to stop them being placed anonymously. This move follows Facebook’s expansion of its fact-checking operations, for example by teaming up with British fact-checking charity FullFact.
Facebook told us that it has taken an industry-leading position on political ad transparency in the UK, with new tools that go beyond what the law currently requires and that it has invested significantly to prevent the spread of disinformation and bolster high-quality journalism and news literacy. The transparency tools show exactly which page is running ads, and all the ads that they are running. It then houses those ads in its “ad library” for seven years. It claims it doesn’t want misleading content on its site and is cracking down on it using a combination of technology and human review.
While these measures will go some way towards addressing the problem, several flaws have already emerged. And it remains difficult to see how Facebook can tackle fake news in particular with its existing measures.
In 2018, journalists at Business Insider successfully placed fake ads they listed as paid for by the now-defunct company Cambridge Analytica. It is this kind of fraud that Facebook is aiming to stamp out with its news transparency rules, which require political advertisers to prove their identity. However, it’s worth noting that none of Business Insider’s “test adverts” appear to be listed in Facebook’s new ad library, raising questions about its effectiveness as a full public record.
The problem is that listing which person or organisation paid the bill for an ad isn’t the same as revealing the ultimate source of its funding. For example, it was recently reported that Britain’s biggest political spender on Facebook was Britain’s Future, a group that has spent almost £350,000 on ads. The group can be traced back to a single individual: 30-year-old freelance writer Tim Dawson. But exactly who funds the group is unclear.
While the group does allow donations, it is not a registered company, nor does it appear in the database of the UK’s Electoral Commission or the Information Commissioner. This highlights a key flaw in the UK’s political advertising regime that isn’t addressed by Facebook’s measures, and shows that transparency at the ad-buying level isn’t enough to reveal potential improper influence.
The new measures also rely on advertisers classifying their ads as political, or using overtly political language. This means advertisers could still send coded messages that Facebook’s algorithms may not detect.
Facebook recently had more success when it identified and removed its first UK-based fake news network, which comprised 137 groups spreading “divisive comments on both sides of the political debate in the UK”. But the discovery came as part of an investigation into hate speech towards the home secretary, Sajid Javid. This suggests that Facebook’s dedicated methods for tackling fake news aren’t working as effectively as they could.
Facebook has had plenty of time to get to grips with the modern issue of fake news being used for political purposes. As early as 2008, Russia began disseminating online misinformation to influence proceedings in Ukraine, which became a testing ground for the Kremlin’s tactics of cyberwarfare and online disinformation. Isolated fake news stories then began to surface in the US in the early 2010s, targeting politicians and divisive topics such as gun control. These then evolved into sophisticated fake news networks operating at a global level.
But the way Facebook works means it has played a key role in helping fake news become so powerful and effective. The burden of proof for a news story has been lowered to one aspect: popularity. With enough likes, shares and comments – no matter whether they come from real users, click farms or bots – a story gains legitimacy no matter the source.
As a result, some countries have already decided that Facebook’s self-regulation isn’t enough. In 2018, in a bid to “safeguard democracy”, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, introduced a controversial law banning online fake news during elections that gives judges the power to remove and obtain information about who published the content.
Meanwhile, Germany has introduced fines of up to €50m on social networks that host illegal content, including fake news and hate speech. Incidentally, while Germans make up only 2% of Facebook users, Germans now comprise more than 15% of Facebook’s global moderator workforce. In a similar move in late December 2018, Irish lawmakers introduced a bill to criminalise political adverts on Facebook and Twitter that contain intentionally false information.
The real-life impact these policies have is unclear. Fake news still appears on Facebook in these countries, while the laws give politicians the ability to restrict freedom of speech and the press, something that has sparked a mass of criticism in both Germany and France.
Ultimately, there remains a considerable mismatch between Facebook’s promises to make protecting elections a top priority, and its ability to actually do the job. If unresolved, it will leave the European parliament and many other democratic bodies vulnerable to vast and damaging attempts to influence them.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
THE VIEW FROM GOOGLE: PRIVACY, GDPR AND IRELAND AS A ONE STOP SHOP
In his address, Mr Enright, Google’s Chief Privacy Officer, shares his perspectives on Google’s experiences of GDPR, almost one year on. He discusses lessons learned along the way, as well as sharing perspectives on how Google approaches privacy and data protection, and the importance of Ireland as a One Stop Shop.
About the Speaker:
Mr Enright was appointed as Google’s Chief Privacy Officer last year. He joined Google in March 2011, with nearly 20 years of experience in creating and implementing programs for privacy, data stewardship and information risk management. Prior to joining Google, Mr Enright served as the most senior privacy executive at two Fortune 500 online and offline retail enterprises.
The IIEA is Ireland’s leading European & International Affairs think tank. We are an independent, not-for-profit organisation with charitable status.
Our role is to identify key European and international policy trends, which will inform the work of Ireland’s decision makers and business leaders, and enrich the public debate on Ireland’s role in the EU and on the global stage.