Rude, fault or blemish; flaw, disgrace or shame. The word has many shades, but nearly every woman who grows up in Arabic-speaking households knows its singular weight. “Anything related to women is eib,” says Tala El-Issa, from her home in Cairo. “If they want to talk about their bodies, it’s eib, their problems – eib. Just being a woman is almost eib.”
When the team at Sowt, an Arabic podcasting network based across the Middle East, wanted to create a show that charged fearlessly into the region’s taboos around sex and gender, the title was obvious. “Eib” is now in its seventh season, the company’s longest-lasting podcast and its most popular.
It is pointed journalism couched as first-person storytelling: about getting over a bad break-up, Beirut’s drag queen scene, discovering one is gay or transgender, or becoming a widow and learning that, under Jordanian law, custody of your children can pass to their grandfather. Loose themes such as the body are used to explore topics from eating disorders to Israel’s military occupation.
“We talk about all the things in the world that are not being talked about,” says Ramsey Tesdell, Sowt’s co-founder and executive director.
Unlike podcasts such as This American Life, whose influence on a generation of programmes is unmistakable, Eib rarely uses reporters to guide stories, preferring to have the subject themselves narrate, even if names or voices are sometimes changed for privacy.
When El-Issa was asked to take over the programme in its second season, she saw a chance to challenge the silence around sexuality, identity and women in the Arab world, and the way those taboos were usually covered in foreign media.
“I was kind of bored with the whole narrative of defending women, though of course I’m with the cause. But there’s also a kind of stagnation in the way people talk about these things,” she says. “It’s not just about being politically correct, or just saying Arabs are stupid and don’t respect women. I feel like we succeeded in building a new way to talk about these things, other than [with] women as either victims or heroines. There’s this grey area where we move between the two, and it’s much more complex than traditional media make it seem.”
Analytics show most downloads come from Saudi Arabia or Egypt, though that may be as much down to the size of those markets as their appetite to hear the stories of their lives being said out loud.
“We notice it gets shared privately a lot through emails, DMs, people sharing it on WhatsApp or Telegram or Instagram messages,” Tesdell says.
When the show began in 2016, its creators understood the potential for a backlash. “Maybe we should’ve been more concerned about that but I was in the mode of no fuck’s given,” says Tesdell. It never came. Now producers say each season has hundreds of thousands of downloads.
“People were desperate to hear these stories,” he says. “Everybody in the Levant has had a friend or [have themselves] been in a relationship with someone they can’t marry for whatever reason. That story is so prominent.”
Even the complaints that did come felt half-hearted. “Of course, you get the Islamists, the conservatives, there was a little bit of backlash from the church on a couple of episodes,” Tesdell says. “But it’s the typical sheikh or priest saying stuff. Because the show was so relevant and in its context … they felt old-school, irrelevant.”
That is not to say there isn’t occasional friction between the programme creators’ vision and some listeners. “The red line that always, always get us into trouble is LGBTQ issues,” El-Issa says. “People say, we loved you before but we don’t know why you’re hopping on the bandwagon, hijacking the western trend … But we made a conscious decision that if we lose people over that, they’re not our audience.”
The programme’s makers situate Eib as part of a burgeoning wider discussion of gender and sexual issues in parts of the Arab world, a loosening of rigid social mores that grew stricter in some societies from the 1970s onwards, but may now be weaker than they appear.
But just as the internet is shattering media around the world into innumerable streams of information, across the Arab world it is making space for new conversations about topics that as recently as a decade ago were rarely canvassed outside small, trusted circles, if at all, Tesdell says.
He likens Eib’s success to the nascent #MeToo movements in Egypt and Kuwait, sparked by social media conversations that grew too quickly and became too large to be suppressed.
“People had been fighting this for generations, and a lot of pieces fit in place: the time, the technology, the people willing to talk,” Tesdell says. “All those pieces fit into place to create this moment.”
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.
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. ®
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.
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.