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Revert to type: how Goa’s last typewriter repair shop defied the digital age | Global development

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In Goa’s capital, Panaji, on Rua São Tomé, not far from the main post office, is a shop that offers packaging services. For a small fee, they will wrap your parcel in a sheet of muslin sewn with precise stitches to protect its contents from being damaged in the post.

It started as a sideline to the main business of the store, but now it is the main earner for Luis Francisco Miguel de Abreu as he struggles to maintain one of the last typewriter repair shops in this Indian state.

Inside the shop, several typewriters sit in various states of repair, looking much like museum pieces. There is a Hermes, a Remington and a Godrej Prima, from the Indian manufacturer that was the last company in the world to make typewriters.

Luis Abreu, son of Domingos Abreu and the shop’s current owner.
‘As long as the main door is open, I will have to do it. I prefer to go till the end,’ says Luis Abreu, the shop’s owner. Photograph: Chryselle D’Silva Dias

Abreu, 78, sits in a chair surrounded by paperwork, spare parts and memories. His father, Domingos Abreu, was employed by the US typewriter manufacturer Remington Rand in Mumbai before he moved back to Goa and started his own servicing and repair firm in 1938.

“My older brother wanted to study engineering and there were no schools or colleges here, so he had to go to Portugal,” says Abreu. “You needed good marks and money. I could have also gone but I stayed back to study and help my father in the shop.”

When his father opened the shop, Goa was still controlled by Portugal, which colonised the territory in 1510 and held power until 1961. “We moved here, to this location, I think, in 1953,” says Abreu. “At that time there was nothing here. We had one muddy road here with horses and bullock carts. There was one restaurant selling rice, curry and vegetables, no fish.”

Today the state is a busy tourist desitnation, where there is a trendy restaurant or fish curry joint on every street and selfies being taken at every colourful doorway.

In December 1961, the last ship left Goa for those who wanted to return to Portugal after it was annexed by the Indian military and the state became part of the republic. “We got the news that the João de Lisboa [a Portuguese warship] had come and whoever wants to go [to Portugal] can go,” says Abreu. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to leave my establishment and my father.”

The shop, named Domingos Abreu after Abreu’s father, was the bustling go-to place for typewriter sales and repairs. “All the big mining companies – the Dempos, the Chowgules – the government departments, even the military: they all came here,” says Abreu, “But business has stopped now.”

Typewriters were once the backbone of India’s famed bureaucracy. From government offices to law courts, they were the essential symbol of modernisation in independent India.

Professional typists work on a roadside near the stock exchange in New Delhi, India. The country has thousands of professional typists, most working outside the country’s courts and government offices.
Professional typists work in a roadside office near the stock exchange in Delhi. The country has thousands of professional typists. Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP

Typing and shorthand schools churned out thousands of graduates ready to take on secretarial work. Some of these still exist in rural areas, teaching shorthand along with keyboard skills for computers. “I feel it was a mistake to close the institutes,” says Abreu. “If they had remained open, things might have been different. Many people tell me that our children can’t type fast – they’re typing with one finger; the speed is just not there.”

In the Goan town of Ponda, Milagres D’Costa, 70, has been running D’Costa Commercial Institute since 1977. He offers classes in shorthand and typing for computers and manual typewriters; he has no takers for the latter. “Nobody wants to learn on typewriters now,” he says.

While brands such as Remington and Olivetti were popular in India, Godrej & Boyce made India’s first locally produced typewriters from 1955 until 2011, when the increasing reach of mobile phones and computers made that part of the business obsolete. The lack of new typewriters and spare parts, however, has not dampened the enthusiasm of those who love the sound of the keys. Abreu still gets requests to repair and service machines, and the business enjoyed an increase in customers after the first Covid lockdown was lifted in Goa.

The state is now in a second partial lockdown, which means the workshop is closed. Abreu says Covid has been “a boon and a bane” for his business.

“Everyone was cleaning things during the lockdown and we got several machines to look at,” says Natasha, Abreu’s daughter, who helps out at the shop. “We get clients from all over the country. Many are tourists who come across our shop while walking around. They go home and bring back vintage typewriters that they want to use or keep as showpieces.”

But there is little profit in typewriters. “To secure the dealership of one large company I lost a lot of money,” says Abreu. “The company took a deposit from me but they have now disappeared. There is no refund, nothing.”

Spare parts are also difficult to find, and Abreu’s fading eyesight and other health issues make repairs tricky. “I can do basic repairs,” says Natasha. “Things like changing the ribbon and oiling the parts. The rest is a little more intricate for me to do.” A local man, Anton Rebello, has also been trained to make some repairs.

Luis Abreu typewriter story
A typewriter at Domingos Abreu in Panaji. Spare parts are in short supply. Photograph: Chryselle D’Silva Dias

The parcel service is now the main earner. “What else could we do?” says Abreu. “There were no sales or service [work] so we started packaging. It was a good business at the beginning, but now they have introduced new rules, which mean you have to go to the post office, show what is in the package, declare it for customs, and then stitch and seal the package in their presence. My daughter does that work now.”

But the future is uncertain. “I am only one Luis Abreu. How long can a person continue? As long as the main door is open, I will have to do it. I prefer to go till the end.”

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Big Brother is still watching you and he goes by the name Facebook | John Naughton

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The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.

The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.

Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.

Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.

Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”

Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.

Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.

You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.

What I’ve been reading

Masters and servants
Between Golem and God: The Future of AI is a beautifully structured essay on the 3 Quarks Daily website.

Dressed for all weathers
How clothing and climate change kickstarted agriculture is the thesis of an intriguing Aeon essay by Ian Gilligan, a prehistorian at the University of Sydney.

On the mend
Monopolists Are Winning the Repair Wars is a terrific blog post by Cory Doctorow on the importance of the “right to repair” our own equipment.

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Amazon exec’s husband jailed for two years for insider trading. Yes, with Amazon stock • The Register

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The husband of an Amazon financial executive was sentenced on Thursday to 26 months behind bars for insider trading of the web giant’s stock.

Viky Bohra, 37, of Bothell, Washington, reaped a profit of $1,428,264 between January 2016 and October 2018 by buying and selling Amazon stock using eleven trading accounts managed by himself and his family.

Bohra was able to pocket these big gains because he got copies of Amazon’s confidential financial figures from his wife, Laksha Bohra, who worked as a senior manager in the mega corp’s tax department. Laksha had access to Amazon’s earnings before the numbers were publicly disclosed and reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her husband “obtained” this secret information, despite her being repeatedly warned to not leak the confidential data, and used it to favorably trade in Amazon stock and options.

“This defendant and his wife were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses from their jobs in tech – but he was not content with that – greedily scheming to illegally profit by trading Amazon stock,” Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman, said in a statement.

“This case should stand as a warning to those who try to game the markets with insider trading: there is a heavy price to pay with a felony conviction and prison sentence.”

The FBI began sniffing around, and the Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington filed criminal charges [PDF] against Viky in 2020. He pleaded guilty in November to securities fraud. The prosecution had asked the courts for a 33-month sentence.

Separately, he was also charged by the SEC and told to cough up $2,652,899 in disgorgement, interest, and penalties.

“Mr Bohra knew exactly what he was doing and was driven solely by greed,” Donald Voiret, an FBI Special Agent leading the Seattle Field Office, added. “With his nearly unlimited access and knowledge of securities trading, he undermined public trust in our financial markets.”

Laksha Bohra was suspended from her job in 2018 and resigned shortly after, according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC [PDF], and will not face criminal charges as part of Viky’s agreement to plead guilty. ®

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Stripe rolls out new tax compliance tool for merchants

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Stripe Tax automates much of the calculating and collecting of levies like VAT and sales tax for businesses.

Fintech giant Stripe is rolling out a new product to automate businesses’ tax compliance.

Stripe Tax, which was built at the company’s engineering hub in Dublin, helps businesses to automatically calculate and collect sales taxes, VAT and goods and service taxes where they do business.

The product has been rolled out in 30 countries and all US states. Stripe Tax manages the requirements for tax collecting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This ensures merchants are in compliance with local tax rules but without the headache of managing it themselves.

According to a 2020 report from Stripe, two-thirds of businesses say that managing tasks like tax compliance inhibits their growth and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on product development.

The matter of tax has become more complex with the mix of physical and digital goods and sales across borders.

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Non-compliance with taxes, even through accidental oversight, can lead to serious sanctions or interest-laden tax bills for businesses.

Stripe Tax calculates taxes due by determining an end customer’s location and products they’re buying. It adapts as changes to tax regimes come into effect and generates reports for businesses on the levies calculated and collected.

“No one leaps out of bed in the morning excited to deal with taxes,” Stripe co-founder John Collison said. “For most businesses, managing tax compliance is a painful distraction. We simplify everything about calculating and collecting sales taxes, VAT and GST, so our users can focus on building their businesses.”

Large companies, including News UK, have started using the product.

“Directly integrating Stripe Tax into our subscriptions platform will save us countless hours, time that can be better spent elsewhere,” Ruan Odendaal, head of subscriptions platform at NewsUK, said.

Stripe has had a very busy 2021 so far. After raising funding at a $95bn valuation, it has been rolling out more services that go beyond the payments processing the company was originally built on, as well as expanding geographically with a focus on the Middle East.

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