By Reuters | Updated: 21 September 2021
India’s plan to tighten rules on its fast-growing e-commerce market has run into internal government dissent, memos reviewed by Reuters show, with the Ministry of Finance describing some proposals as “excessive” and “without economic rationale”.
The memos offer a rare glimpse of high-stakes policy-making governing a market already featuring global retail heavyweights from Amazon to Walmart, plus domestic players like Reliance Industries and Tata Group. The sector is forecast by Grant Thornton to be worth $188 billion (roughly Rs. 13,84,065 crores) by 2025.
It’s not clear how the objections from the finance ministry – a dozen in total – will ultimately be reflected in the proposed rule changes, first floated in June. But watchers of the influential government arm say its complaints won’t fall on deaf ears in the upper echelons of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.
“The ministry of finance raising such concerns would likely spur a rethink of the policy,” said Suhaan Mukerji, managing partner at India’s PLR Chambers, a law firm that specialises in public policy issues.
India in June shocked the e-commerce world with proposals from its consumer affairs ministry that sought to limit ‘flash sales’, rein in a push to promote private-label brands push and raise scrutiny of relationships between online marketplace operators and their vendors. There is not yet a formal implementation timeline for the new rules.
Though the rules were announced after complaints from brick-and-mortar retailers about alleged unfair practices of foreign companies, they also drew protest from Tata Group, with more than $100 billion (roughly Rs. 7,36,205 crores) in revenue, which is planning an e-commerce expansion.
But the finance ministry, the ministry of corporate affairs and the federal think-tank NITI Aayog – an active player in policy-making – have all raised objections in memos reviewed by Reuters, saying the proposals go far beyond their stated aim of protecting consumers and also lack regulatory clarity.
An August 31 memo from the Finance Ministry’s Department of Economic Affairs said the rules appeared “excessive” and would hit a sector that could boost job creation as well as tax revenue.
“The proposed amendments are likely to have significant implications/restrictions on a sunrise sector and ‘ease of doing business’,” said the three-page memo. “Care needs to be taken to ensure that the proposed measures remain ‘light-touch regulations’.”
The finance ministry did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
A spokesman for India’s consumer affairs ministry said in a statement that “internal discussions among various stakeholders including government agencies is (a) sign of mature and healthy decision making process in a democracy.”
‘Unpredictability’ in the making
Voicing its own objections on July 6, NITI Aayog’s vice chairman, Rajiv Kumar, wrote to Piyush Goyal, who is minister for commerce as well as consumer affairs minister, saying the rules could hit small businesses.
“Moreover, they send the message of unpredictability and inconsistency in our policy-making,” Kumar wrote in the letter, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters.
Minister Goyal and NITI Aayog’s Kumar did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
The arguments put forth by the finance ministry and NITI Aayog are in line with concerns raised by sector operators, and even the US government. They say New Delhi has in recent years changed e-commerce policies too often and taken a hard-line regulatory approach that especially hurts American players.
But Indian consumer affairs minister Goyal and brick-and-mortar retailers disagree and have repeatedly said big US firms have bypassed Indian laws and their practices hurt small retailers.
The consumer affairs ministry has said the new rules were aimed to “further strengthen the regulatory framework” and were issued after complaints of “widespread cheating and unfair trade practices being observed in the e-commerce ecosystem.”
Its statement said a large number of state governments, industry bodies, e-commerce companies and others have supported the regulations and the ministry wants to have the best workable rules for consumers and business.
Flash sales, regulatory overlap
But the proposals have met with resistance in more than one ministry.
In a July 22 memo, the corporate affairs ministry objected to one proposed clause to be enshrined in new rules that says e-commerce firms should not abuse their dominant position in India. The ministry said the provision was “unnecessary and superfluous”, and that the subject was best handled by India’s antitrust watchdog.
“It is undesirable to introduce a mini-competition law regime in the consumer” rules, said the memo. The corporate affairs ministry did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
The finance ministry has taken a much harder stance on the proposals and raised a total of 12 objections.
Among them, it said, a proposal that makes online shopping websites liable for its sellers’ mistakes would be a “huge dampener” and could force companies “to revisit their basic business models”.
It also lodged a protest against the banning of flash sales, which see deep discounts on offer on websites like Amazon and are popular during festive seasons.
“This is a normal trade practice. The proposed restriction … seems without economic rationale,” the ministry wrote.
© Thomson Reuters 2021
Google Mandates Weekly COVID-19 Tests for People Entering US Offices
By Reuters | Updated: 15 January 2022
Alphabet’s Google is temporarily mandating weekly COVID-19 tests for any person entering Google offices or facilities in the United States, the tech giant said on Friday.
Anyone who comes into Google’s US work sites will require a negative test and be required to wear surgical-grade masks while at the office, the company said.
“To help prevent the further spread of COVID-19 during this period of heightened risk, we’re implementing new temporary health and safety measures for anyone accessing our sites in the US,” a Google spokesperson said.
Google provides free at-home and in-person testing options to its employees, their dependants and household members.
The temporary policy of weekly testing comes as cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus surge in the country.
Last month, Google said it was delaying its return-to-office plan globally from January amid growing concerns over Omicron.
Google, which was one of the first companies to ask its employees to work from home during the pandemic, had told its employees they would lose pay and eventually be fired if they do not follow its COVID-19 vaccination rules, according to a CNBC report in December.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
Ukraine Faces Hacking Attack, Government Websites Down
By Associated Press | Updated: 14 January 2022
A number of government websites in Ukraine were down on Friday after a huge hacking attack, Ukrainian officials said.
While it was not immediately clear who was behind the attacks, they come amid heightened tensions with Russia and after talks between Moscow and the West failed to yield any significant progress this week.
“As a result of a massive hacking attack, the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of other government agencies are temporarily down. Our specialists are already working on restoring the work of IT systems,” spokesman of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry Oleg Nikolenko wrote on Facebook on Friday.
Nikolenko told The Associated Press it was too soon to tell who could have been behind the attacks. “It’s too early to draw conclusions as the investigation is ongoing, but there is a long record of Russian cyber assaults against Ukraine in the past,” he said.
Moscow had previously denied involvement in cyberattacks against Ukraine.
Websites of the country’s Cabinet, seven ministries, the Treasury, the National Emergency Service and the state services website, where Ukrainians’ electronic passports and vaccination certificates are stored, were unavailable Friday as the result of the hack.
The websites contained a message in Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish, saying that Ukrainians’ personal data has been leaked to the public domain. “Be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future,” the message read, in part.
Ukraine’s State Service of Communication and Information Protection has said that no personal data has been leaked.
The US estimates Russia has massed about 100,000 troops near Ukraine, a buildup that has stoked fears of an invasion. Moscow says it has no plans to attack and rejects Washington’s demand to pull back its forces, saying it has the right to deploy them wherever necessary.
The Kremlin has demanded security guarantees from the West precluding NATO’s expansion eastwards.
Last month, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the alliance’s military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. Washington and its allies have refused to provide such pledges, but said they are ready for the talks.
High-stakes talks this week between Moscow and the US, followed by a meeting of Russia and NATO representatives and a meeting at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, failed to bring about any immediate progress.
Google Shows Faith in Work-From-Office With $1-Billion London Deal
By Reuters | Updated: 14 January 2022
Tech giant Google has spent $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,410 crore) to buy a central London building where it is currently a tenant, showing its confidence in the future of the office as a place to work, the company said on Friday.
Google, which employs 6,400 people in Britain, plans a multi-million pound refurbishment of its offices within the Central Saint Giles development it is buying, close to Covent Garden in central London.
“We have been privileged to operate in the UK for nearly 20 years, and our purchase of the Central Saint Giles development reflects our continued commitment to the country’s growth and success,” said Ruth Porat, CFO of Google’s parent company Alphabet.
Google plans to refit the building so it is adapted for in-person teamwork and has meeting rooms for hybrid working, as well as creating more space for individuals.
The new refurbishment will also feature outdoor covered working spaces to enable work in the fresh air, the company said.
Google said it would eventually have capacity for 10,000 workers at its UK sites, including one being developed in the nearby King’s Cross area of London.
“This investment in jobs from Google is a big vote of confidence in the UK as a world-leading tech hub,” finance minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement.
Google said last month that it was delaying its return-to-office plan globally amid growing concerns over the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Central Saint Giles building had been owned by a joint venture between Legal & General Investment Management Real Assets and Mitsubishi Estate London Limited.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
Microsoft Opens Workplace Sexual Harassment Investigation Sought by Investors
By Associated Press | Updated: 14 January 2022
Microsoft said Thursday it is opening an inquiry into how it responds to workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination, including its handling of allegations about co-founder Bill Gates.
The review is a response to pressure from Microsoft investors. Nearly 78 percent of shareholders at the company’s November 30 annual meeting voted to demand more accountability in addressing workplace sexual harassment complaints.
“We’re committed not just to reviewing the report but learning from the assessment so we can continue to improve the experiences of our employees,” CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement.
The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Microsoft’s board hired a law firm in 2019 to look into Gates after a Microsoft engineer alleged in a letter that she had a sexual relationship with Gates over several years. Gates resigned from the board in 2020.
Activist investor proposals to change corporate policy rarely succeed. Microsoft had urged shareholders to reject the proposal, which called on the company to investigate its harassment policies and release a public report about them.
But the investment firm behind the proposal, Massachusetts-based Arjuna Capital, said it was pleased with how the company has responded since the winning vote.
“I’m actually quite impressed with how Microsoft has followed up on their commitment since the annual meeting,” said Natasha Lamb, co-founder and managing partner of the socially minded investment firm.
She said she has had talks with Microsoft about how the investigation would proceed. The board authorised the company to hire the law firm Arent Fox to conduct the review.
“Our concern is not just what happened with Microsoft in the past but whether that behavior is being addressed and mitigated moving forward,” she said in an interview Thursday. “At the end of the day, from an investor perspective, this is about how the company is treating its employees and whether it’s able to attract and retain talent.”
The company based in Redmond, Washington, said its public report will include an assessment of the effectiveness of its policies against harassment and discrimination. It will also summarise the results of investigations into harassment allegations against board members and senior leaders, including the handling of the 2019 investigation of Gates, and will outline steps to hold leaders accountable.
YouTube Lets Its Platform Be ‘Weaponised’ to Spread Misinformation, Fact Checkers Claim
By Associated Press | Updated: 13 January 2022
More than 80 fact checking organisations are calling on YouTube to address what they say is rampant misinformation on the platform.
In a letter to CEO Susan Wojcicki published Wednesday, the groups say the Google-owned video platform is “one of the major conduits of online disinformation and misinformation worldwide.”
YouTube’s efforts to address the problem, they say, are proving insufficient.
“What we do not see is much effort by YouTube to implement policies that address the problem,” the letter says. “On the contrary, YouTube is allowing its platform to be weaponised by unscrupulous actors to manipulate and exploit others, and to organise and fundraise themselves.”
The problem, these groups said, is especially rampant in non-English speaking countries and the global south.
The fact checkers are all members of the International Fact Checking Network and include Rappler in the Philippines, Africa Check, Science Feedback in France and dozens of other groups. They lambasted YouTube, saying it frames discussions about disinformation as a “false dichotomy” of deleting or not deleting content.
Displaying fact-checked information is more effective than deleting content, the fact checkers wrote.
They propose that YouTube focuses on providing context and debunks that are “clearly superimposed” on videos. They also called for YouTube to act against repeat offenders and beef up efforts against misinformation in languages other than English.
In a statement, YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez said the company has “invested heavily in policies and products in all countries we operate to connect people to authoritative content, reduce the spread of borderline misinformation, and remove violative videos.”
She called fact checking “a crucial tool to help viewers make their own informed decisions,” but added that it is “one piece of a much larger puzzle to address the spread of misinformation.”
World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report Lists Out What Threatens Global Economy
By Associated Press | Updated: 11 January 2022
Cybersecurity and space are emerging risks to the global economy, adding to existing challenges posed by climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum said in a report Tuesday.
The Global Risks Report is usually released ahead of the annual elite winter gathering of CEOs and world leaders in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, but the event has been postponed for a second year in a row because of COVID-19. The World Economic Forum still plans some virtual sessions next week.
Here’s a rundown of the report, which is based on a survey of about 1,000 experts and leaders:
As 2022 begins, the pandemic and its economic and societal impact still pose a “critical threat” to the world, the report said. Big differences between rich and poor nations’ access to vaccines mean their economies are recovering at uneven rates, which could widen social divisions and heighten geopolitical tensions.
By 2024, the global economy is forecast to be 2.3 percent smaller than it would have been without the pandemic. But that masks the different rates of growth between developing nations, whose economies are forecast to be 5.5 percent smaller than before the pandemic, and rich countries, which are expected to expand 0.9 percent.
The pandemic forced a huge shift — requiring many people to work or attend class from home and giving rise to an exploding number of online platforms and devices to aid a transformation that has dramatically increased security risks, the report said.
“We’re at the point now where cyberthreats are growing faster than our ability to effectively prevent and manage them,” said Carolina Klint, a risk management leader at Marsh, whose parent company Marsh McLennan co-authored the report with Zurich Insurance Group and SK Group.
Cyberattacks are becoming more aggressive and widespread, as criminals use tougher tactics to go after more vulnerable targets, the report said. Malware and ransomware attacks have boomed, while the rise of cryptocurrencies makes it easy for online criminals to hide payments they have collected.
While those responding to the survey cited cybersecurity threats as a short- and medium-term risk, Klint said the report’s authors were concerned that the issue wasn’t ranked higher, suggesting it’s a “blind spot” for companies and governments.
Space is the final frontier — for risk.
Falling costs for launch technology has led to a new space race between companies and governments. Last year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space tourism venture Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson took off, while Elon Musk’s Space X business made big gains in launching astronauts and satellites.
Meanwhile, a host of countries are beefing up their space programmes as they chase geopolitical and military power or scientific and commercial gains, the report said.
But all these programmes raise the risk of frictions in orbit.
“Increased exploitation of these orbits carries the risk of congestion, an increase in debris and the possibility of collisions in a realm with few governance structures to mitigate new threats,” the report said.
Space exploitation is one of the areas that respondents thought had among the least amount of international collaboration to deal with the challenges.
Experts and leaders responding to the survey “don’t believe that much is being done in the best possible way moving forward,” World Economic Forum’s managing director, Saadia Zahidi, said at a virtual press briefing from Geneva.
Other areas include artificial intelligence, cyberattacks and migration and refugees, she said.
The environment remains the biggest long-term worry.
The planet’s health over the next decade is the dominant concern, according to survey respondents, who cited failure to act on climate change, extreme weather, and loss of biodiversity as the top three risks.
The report noted that different countries are taking different approaches, with some moving faster to adopt a zero-carbon model than others. Both approaches come with downsides. While moving slowly could radicalise more people who think the government isn’t acting urgently, a faster shift away from carbon intense industries could spark economic turmoil and throw millions out of work.
“Adopting hasty environmental policies could also have unintended consequences for nature,” the report added. “There are still many unknown risks from deploying untested biotechnical and geoengineering technologies.”
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