Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt has lessons for the world’s Internet freedoms

(Written for the Sunday Guardian)

Last week, the Egyptian government blocked social networking sites in the country to control the civil revolution brewing in the streets. Massive protests had been arranged via SMS chains and social networking sites, and this shutdown was a direct attempt to quash them. Very unsurprisingly, some enterprising young people managed to bypass the blocks. Proxy servers helped users hide their locations and access certain social networking sites, while third party apps, like Blackberry for Twitter and UberTwitter, were found to work since they did not access the sites directly. Some people accessed the Internet using private networks, outside of the state's purview. As a result, the rest of the world was able to see videos of the protestors being hit by teargas and read updates online, despite the blockage. That's when the government decided to go for a total Internet blackout.

The reach of the Internet and new media is best understood by its two biggest stereotypes today: the yuppie on Facebook and the fisherman with a cellphone. And while businesses and civil society have been preoccupied with strategies to expand the reach of the Internet to all citizens, there is a parallel attempt to control it by the governments of the day. The reasons cited are overwhelmingly related to cyber security; but this power over channels of communication can certainly be used to control the aspirations of a defiant public, as we have seen from time to time.

The thought of a complete 'black hole', as some people are calling Egypt's Internet blackout, is frightening in today's context. The possibility of the same occurring in other countries is directly proportionate to the control that a State has over the ISPs (Internet Service Providers). According to reports, private ISPs in Egypt shut down their services within three minutes of each other, indicating a directive from higher up. This level of control has never been witnessed, even in China, where access to certain content is permanently restricted. In Pakistan, websites with 'blasphemous' content have been banned at various periods, including blogs and other media that challenged President Musharraf's electoral win in 2008 by alleging vote rigging. Similarly, in 2009, Iran blocked Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites to minimize a growing urban protest against President Ahmedinejad's "landslide" election. But these are all examples of certain websites being blocked, nowhere near the Egyptian government's total shutdown of the Internet.

Could this happen to us?, is the question being asked in forums across the globe. Most US commentators believe that a systematic shutdown would not be possible in their country because there are too many operators, many of which are far too independent to adhere to a government directive. But the events of the last week have brought on fears of a cyber security bill in the senate -- 'Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset' -- which would allow the President to 'switch off' the Internet in the name of national security. A law that might be passed in the name of economic security might well be used in the name of curtailing civil unrest.

Back home in India, 'removing objectionable content' is pretty standard fare, with even Google complying with these requests from the government. During the Kargil War of 1999, access to the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, was blocked online, and more recently, in 2006, when the government asked for certain websites to be blocked, the ISPs obliged. And in 2009, many Indian men discovered to their horror that the government had blocked the comic-porn site, Savita Bhabhi. As for social networking sites, Orkut has also agreed to remove 'defamatory content'. But India has never been tested on the scale that Egypt has. One mustn't forget that the government of Jammu and Kashmir banned text messages in the summer of 2010 to restrict rallies and protest marches by the youth. Whatever the official explanations were, denying access to communication only served to further alienate people and resentment against the establishment.

Judging by experiences across the digital world, the move by the Egyptian government to deny the entire country access to the Internet becomes a gross violation of human rights, especially at a time when countries like France and Norway have accepted the Internet as a fundamental right. Today, ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) is becoming an increasingly common phrase, and an accepted medium of delivering on the promise of development, modernisation and open communication. Incidents such as Egypt's only serve to remind us that these ideas rest on shaky ground. And in this case, we've just been reminded, yet again, that Marshall McLuhan was right in 1964 when he said, the medium IS the message.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When everyone comes out looking bad

I woke up this morning wondering what happened to the BJP walas trying to hoist a flag at Lal Chowk. You know, when I think of the BJP, I can't help but get confused at exactly who these actions are meant to impress. Don't get me wrong, there are enough Hindu nationalists who will be pumped up at an India Yatra and charging into Kashmir to "re-claim" it (seems to me what they are doing) but at the same time, if the situation dissolves into violence, with innocents killed, what will it get them exactly?

But to a more basic point. When I heard about this proposed flag hoisting at Lal Chowk, like so many others, my initial reaction was "why are they messing with Kashmir?" It seemed like a situation tailor-made for disaster, and looking at images to these well fed hoards of men, walking in a big crowd, one can't help but feel nervous at the potential for violence. Some of the Hindi news channels showed footage of the BSF jawans lining up at the Punjab border, ready for a showdown, and I couldn't help but wonder why they needed to waste their time saving India from, well, India.

But outside of this PR stunt, there were other news items that rung alarm bells. The government was not allowing BJP leaders to proceed to Kashmir. All of us read the tweets and saw on the news when Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley & co were detained at the airport. There was an incredibly funny (read:slapstick) story about how some BJP workers from Karnataka were heading north and the train engine was switched at night to the back, so they ended up back in the south! What kept bothering me about these stories was the blatant violation of our freedoms - of expression, of movement - especially when ostensibly, this is a peaceful march to hoist a flag.

Another point that just bugged me was, as an Indian (even though I don't actually support this PR stunt), why should we be nervous of it? Why couldn't the government in the state say we welcome you to join us at Srinagar, or failing that, we would love to join you to do this together. It was just a few weeks ago that I saw a report in the news that hundreds of young men showed up to join the police force, their reason being a solid job. One can't help but get frustrated at the treatment Kashmir is given by the rest of the country. It almost seems like the Valley being held hostage by separatists is the only situation that is acceptable and any move to treat it much like any other state is met with a harsh NO.

But this stunt itself doesn't make sense to me. I can understand this India Yatra (and as Ravi Shankar Prasad said, the rest of the yatra has been peaceful, no one even got slapped) but I'm not sure what it gets the BJP. I'm a young educated voting Indian, so I understand that no party is particularly interested in wooing me, especially not by appealing to my intellect. But at the same time, I keep hearing about this move to developmental politics (hell, I see enough indications of a rising country when I travel) so why didn't the BJP, or the Congress, or anybody else announce a charity, or expel tainted leaders, to show that we are changing as a country?

Last night I was watching The Daily Show and there was an interview by this Indian-America journalist who said that there is a growing culture in this country, one of creativity and this sense that we need to move forward, and this culture will be a bigger threat to America than economics. In contrast, he felt that America's uber-capitalist culture would be its Achilles heel. While there are so many Indians, now finally allowed to play with their entrepreneurial and development-oriented instincts, if you look at the headlines in this country one can't help but feel sad at how much politics and government lets them down.

At a meeting with a senior government official last evening, he told me that I must take on the issue of how the UPSC exam is letting the country down. How bureaucrats are promoted on the basis of how much they oblige their seniors, rather than competence. He told me that most custom officials keep a few wives and families, with assets distributed equally, to hedge bets. He talked about e-government projects trying to curtail this rampant corruption. "It is the government which has let the people down," he kept repeating, and I honestly don't know who would argue with that sentiment.

But back to my BJP/Kashmir quandary. I'm not really sure what is the right thing here. Should the BJP mess with a volatile region (and possibly lives) for a photo-op? Should the Government of India be this nervous of its own state? And especially when Yasin Malik, separatist leader makes statements like "BJPs flag hoisting won't destroy the resolve of the Kashmiri people". It seems the government is protecting those who want to burn the flag rather than hoist it. What does this say about us?

I think the people of India, one by one, are creating a culture of progress and prosperity which is completely divorced from what our political leadership seems to be pre occupied with. The people I work with, in the digital empowerment and ICT4D sector are the real leaders today. The people I see on my TV every night, really, really don't understand what it is to lead by example. Happy Republic Day!

Edited to Add: So, Omar did finally invite the BJP leaders to his official flag hoisting. Right now, I have no idea what their reply is.