Thursday, March 14, 2013

India has an internet problem

In a discussion on withdrawing the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000, member of parliament from Karnataka, M. Rama Jois, proclaimed that, “this law was passed in a hurry and we are worrying at leisure!” Hurry is putting it loosely. On the last day of the Winter Session of the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of Parliament) in December 2008, seven bills were passed in seven minutes, without any discussion on them.

Section 66A, as has been widely reported, allows for “punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service”, which include messages that cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred and even ill will. As a result, there have been arrests across India on the basis of a Facebook update, tweet and even sharing a cartoon online. Experts have panned Section 66A across India, and student led Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenged its constitutionality in the Supreme Court stating that Section 66A curbs freedom of speech and expression and violates Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. In response, the government issued an advisory asking state governments not to allow police to make arrests using this section unless authorized by a senior officer, both at city and district levels.

The court of public opinion has been firmly against the government’s position that the enforcement agencies are to blame for misuse of Section 66A, not the wording of the IT Act. In an interview in November 2012, the Minister for Information and Technology, Kapil Sibal categorically stated, “there is nothing unconstitutional about the Section.”

However, a host of civil society actors and politicians have continued to challenge this school of thought. In his Private Members Bill in the Lok Sabha, Member of Parliament Jay Panda has stated that within Section 66A, “clause (a) of Section 66A uses expressions such as ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘menacing’ which are not only impossible to define but also highly subjective by individual standards. Clause (b) prescribes penalties for offences such as ‘annoyance’, ‘criminal intimidation’, ‘insult’ and promoting ‘hatred’ or ‘ill- will’ between groups. Prescribing the same punishment for ‘annoyance’, as well as ‘criminal intimidation, by bundling of disparate terms within the same clause is bound to lead to confusion and misuse.”

Similarly, Pranesh Prakash of the Center for Internet and Society called Section 66A “patently in violation of Art. 19(1)(a) of our Constitution.” In a detailed note, he explains that the origin of Section 66 A(c) –“for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages” -- can be found in the then Minister A. Raja’s desire to respond to an observation by the Standing Committee on Information Technology that the Act in its current state did not have any provisions for spam. If this is indeed the case, as was suggested during an Index event in New Delhi by panelist Ajit Balakrishnan, founder of web portal and part of an expert committee that worked on the Information Technology Bill, when he said, “government officials have genuine problems with phrasing,” then clearly the problem with the Bill lies in its language. However, he has also reasoned that the Bill was passed without debate as it was in Parliament only a month after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, because it gave the state “requisite power” to deal with Information Age challenges.

This March, the discussion in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) of Minister of Parliament, P. Rajeev’s Private Member Bill to withdraw Section 66A revealed very interesting aspects of both sides of this debate. One of the main criticisms this section has faced is that it puts harsher punishments for the same crime committed offline. For example, under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the charge of defamation carries a maximum jail sentence of two years in contrast to the three years Section 66A carries for the same offence. There are other examples. However, in his rebuttal, Information and Technology Minister, Kapil Sibal, stated in the house that, “the print media gets extinguished. You read the newspaper the next day, and it is over. The social media is a continuing process. You will have that byte on the site for months. In a sense, it is a continuing offence, not so in the print media. It has a life of its own, not so in the print media. So, should the same norm be applied to the social media as we do in the real world?”

Taking on the government’s suggestion that the main problem with Section 66A lies in its proper implementation, MP R. Chadrasekhar told the House, “to say that it is only a law enforcement implementation problem, is mischaracterizing the problem. Of course, there is the issue of abuse by agencies, as recent incidents have shown. The police machinery is not equipped with legal tools to interpret the statutes in online speech cases and cave in to political pressure often.” However, Vice Chairman Dr. E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, countered this thought with his defence of the Section, saying that misuse of all laws take place and “therefore, what one can do is, one can, somehow, rectify the approach of those who execute the law rather than deleting those Sections from the Statute Book.”

The robust debate led to P. Rajeev withdrawing his Resolution as Minister Kapil Sibal assured the House that the resolution will be taken up after the Supreme Court of India rules on the Public Interest Litigation currently challenging the Section 66A.

Over four years after the Act was passed, and countless arrests and misguided blocking of websites later, Section 66A lies firmly in place in India law. If the government holds its position that Section 66A is constitutional and needs only proper enforcement, then there is something to worry about. Some experts, like Ajit Balakrishnan, believe it takes 25 years for the police at the lowest level to understand the workings of any law, and according to the Indian government itself, the entire country will be connected to the internet well before then. Perhaps, the Supreme Court really is the last hope; else this debate can be expected to snowball in the coming years.

Edited version at:

Friday, March 08, 2013

Will new plans for a digital rural India hit or miss?

Since the internet was introduced  in 1995 in India’s major cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkatta, it has steadly grown in urban areas. By 1998, India has its first Internet Service Provider, Sify (later sold for $155 million). By 2001, India has its first crime branch. By 2005, the country had over 200,000 internet cafes. Facebook arrived in 2006, and in 2009, the government drafted policy on Indian language internet domain names.

As individuals in cities stock up on phones, laptops and tablets, accessing free wifi at more and more public places, the question of digital access in rural India still remains. Over the last decade, The National e-Governance Plan sought to bridge this gap by establishing a Common Service Center in each village. A CSC, as it is known, is a public-private partnership and operates as a one-stop hub for online government services (e-delivery) such as payment of certain utility bills, birth and death certificates, university exam results and such.

However, the overall experiment has revealed that the CSCs do not function equally. People do not need to use these government facilities more than once a month (if that), so unless the private entrepreneur is savvy enough to generate other income from the hub, it is not profitable to run. As well as this, irregular electricity supplies often restrict the timings of the CSC. And finally, while a public office with computers serves some purpose, it cannot substitute having personal connections in people’s homes.

This is why the government of India proposed a National Broadband Network, which will essentially lay out a fibre-optic cable across the country to achieve last mile connectivity. The idea behind this is simply that the network, like roads, will be provided by the government to then encourage private operations to start services those previously untouched areas. The government has committed about $4 billion to build the network that is projected to connect 250,000 village headquarters. One can only hope that it does not become mired in allegations of corruption, like so many other government projects in India.

To understand India, you first need to look at some numbers. As of September 2012, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India revealed that in a country of 1.24 billion people, there are a total of 937.70 million telecom subscribers, including both wireless and wireline. Of these, 595.69 million or 63.5 per cent are from urban areas, while the rest, 342.01 million or 36.47 per cent are from the rural areas. The overall teledensity of the country is 77.04 per cent, with urban pockets at a whopping 161.13 per cent compared to 40.36 per cent in rural areas. Finally, the total number of internet subscribers in India (excluding those who use it on their mobile phones) is 24.01 million, a 5.97 per cent jump from the previous quarter. Some studies put mobile 3G subscriptions at 30 million, as of late 2011.

The figures reveal two important details. The first is that while there are many subscribers for telecom, that does not translate to each citizen owning a phone. In fact, the discrepancy between urban and rural teledensity, compounded by the very low broadband penetration in the country all point to the woefully inadequate job by both government and markets to connect much of rural India.
The solution to digital constraints in rural India has been one of hits and misses in the recent past. In terms of policy, India’s objectives have remained to some degree, quite ambitious. The 2012 Telecom Policy aims to take rural teledensity to 60 per cent by 2017 and one hundred per cent by 2020. The methods, however, are being changed as we speak.

In 2002, the government had constituted a Universal Service Obligation Fund, with the overall intention of encouraging private telecom operators to service remote and less lucrative markets. It did not work, as many service operations opted to pay a penalty instead of rolling out service in commercially unviable regions. For example, villages in India can often have only 500 residents, or be so poor that companies cannot even be guaranteed a minimum number of subscribers to justify their spending on infrastructure. At the same time, the high volume of mobile phones and internet subscriptions in the urban areas suggest that the market has successfully serviced cities, but is not incentivised enough to reach the deepest pockets of India.

While the government will be watched closely to see if it can deliver the network infrastructure it has promised to rural India on time, another facet of an inclusive digital development needs to be kept in mind. Right now, the internet in India serves populations who can read and write in some of the dominant languages including English, Hindi and some prominent state languages. However, as homes in smaller corners of the country get connected, everything from keyboards to content will have to cater to local dialects.

At the same time, outside of big e-commerce portals, projects that serve the smallest customer will be the only way the internet becomes relevant and constructive to rural India. Else, it will solely become a vehicle to youtube videos, Bollywood and cricket updates and let’s face it, porn.

When the final tabulation is done, it seems the government of India has understood all too well that leaving last mile of internet connectivity to commercial companies is not a viable strategy. Another reason they are taking up the challenge with a degree of renewed vigor is that they have pinned high hopes on their ability to deliver government services and crucial information in a more efficient manner through the net. To that end, the information highway needs to be established, so that the distance between the digital haves and digital have-nots does not increase any further.

The recent $1 million TED prize-winning education researcher Dr Sugata Mitra’s ground-breaking project, Hole in the Wall, demonstrates that all that is really needed to spur learning is access to information. In this case, Dr Mishra left an internet connected PC in a hole in a wall, and left to their own devices, slum children quickly learned how to use the computer and go online. Imagine the possibilities if they can grow up as digital natives.