Saturday, May 25, 2013

The New Digital Age: Book Review for Mint

An arresting survey of how technology is changing people and their destinies
From the offices of Google, we get Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s opus, The New Digital Age, which imagines a world they believe is but inevitable—a future completely dominated by technology.
The book promises to explore “the future of people, nations and business”, and this view is predominantly seen through the lens of international and national security. To that end, it ends up presenting a somewhat scary view of the future, countering those with a rose-tinted view of the Internet’s healing powers.
Schmidt and Cohen do seem to believe in the positive power of the Internet, introducing, however, an important caveat at the beginning of their book: Five billion new people are going to be getting online, and the “attributes of these users and their problems are much more complex than those of the two billion” already connected. Despite this, they have taken it upon themselves to predict—sometimes in great detail—how these new equations will play out.
From an Indian perspective, much of the book is laying out the world we will inherit. The first chapter, imagining “Our Future Selves”, paints an almost unimaginable-outside-the-movies view of smart homes, driverless cars, personal robots, flexible education, fantastic medical advances, and so on. It is exciting to know that many of these experiments are already under way. But it is important to remember we can’t really predict how things are going to pan out. For example, while the authors praise the possibility of 3D printing as “the perfect partner for advanced manufacturing”, it is best to remember that the first gun has already been manufactured through a 3D printer in the US, with more than 100,000 people having downloaded its blueprint. There is now a mad scramble in the US to delete those files from the Internet, reminding us yet again about the flip side of technological progress.

The book spans a variety of topics—the future of media houses, as “aggregators, custodians and verifiers” in the wake of an instantaneous social media landscape, and how reporters from unsafe locations can be protected because of technological innovation. This brave new world, where virtual identity might trump your physical identity, will raise new dilemmas. Security and privacy will be our immediate concerns.
The real meat of the book, however, is in the discussion over state policing, cyber warfare and cyber terrorism—how technology will endanger and save us at the same time. For example, Cohen and Schmidt talk about India’s massive Unique Identification (UID) Project that is collecting information on 1.2 billion people, including fingerprints and iris scans. But should it “enhance surveillance capacities of the Indian state at the expense of individual freedoms and privacy?” they ask. They conclude that Indians are still hopeful about its many uses—especially in service delivery—although a similar programme was scrapped in the UK owing to privacy concerns.
In an interesting chapter, the authors imagine how the state can turn against its people through technology. They believe it would be possible to discriminate against minorities by erasing them from the country’s Internet, or even limit their online access, thereby denying them access to knowledge. In the context of censorship, each country indulges in some degree of Internet filtering—and a very real picture of the Internet not making this world a global village but remaining very much part and parcel of the concept of a national policy seems to emerge.
The future is already here—with the Chinese experiencing a heavily guarded Internet and Iran cutting itself off from the global Internet as it stands today. Can we imagine separatists in Kashmir offering a totally different version of the Internet to their followers, establishing in the virtual world what they can’t in the physical? Cohen and Schmidt can.
The book examines the transformative role technology can play in reconstruction after a war or a disaster, and its role in helping spark revolutions. And they have their finger on the pulse of these developing countries: Current headlines are filled with news of online crowdsourcing in Pakistan to prove suspected election malpractice.
Yet the book seems to stop short of laying out a digitally bright future. For example, the idea that you can transcend your earthly limitations of birth, geography and station is suddenly crushed by the concept of a digital caste system that might just work to keep you exactly where you are. It seems to me the real challenge of the new digital age might just well be the ability to retain human rights and free expression in an increasingly securitized and corporatized world.
Mahima Kaul is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and writes on online censorship, governance and inclusion.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

India’s plan to monitor web raises concerns over privacy

The Indian government has been implementing a system to track and access calls, texts, and online activities. Mahima Kaul reports from Delhi that the Central Monitoring System (CMS) will be used by tax authorities and India’s National Investigation Authority to fight terror-related crimes.

Opposition to the surveillance system have now launched an online petition against it. Opponents say that while the system can be used to halt terror attacks and other violence, the government will primarily use it to police hate speech and criticism of authorities. They point to the government’s track record of arresting its online critics under Section 66A of the IT Act.

As with any conversation on state policing, cyber terrorism and warfare, there is extreme nervousness about institutional frameworks, as they should be built for protection of civil liberties as much as for national security. India’s CMS was established in the aftermath of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and according to information released at the time its purpose was to provide “central and regional databases to help central and state-level enforcement agencies intercept and monitor communications” as well as “direct electronic provisioning of target numbers by government agencies without any intervention from telecom service providers.” The government is spending about $75 million to build the system. The minister for information and technology, Milind Deora, reassured the parliament that the system would “lawfully intercept Internet and phone services.”

This claim needs to be further examined. In India, phone tapping laws come under Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885. It was amended in 2007 after a high profile court case giving only the Union and State Home Secretaries the power to order interception of any messages. However, given that communication has increasingly shifted online — including phone calls made via Skype and other VoIP mediums — this communication now comes under Section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008.

Commentators have pointed out that the broad powers included in the act — any government official or policeman can listen to phone calls, emails, SMSs without a warrant — are in clear violation of Article 21 of the Indian constitution, which states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” This means that the government has the power to easily violate a citizen’s guaranteed right to privacy — in the name of security.

There’s also another pressing question to consider when examining the CMS: who will oversee the body to ensure that there are checks and balances?  Intelligence agencies don’t come under parliamentary oversight as of  yet in India. A bill entitled Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulation) Bill, introduced in parliament in 2011 has been shelved by the Prime Minister, with the promise that a law would be formulated soon.

What seems to be a plausible way forward, given that India is building online surveillance mechanisms, is a valid legal framework for bodies like the CMS. The challenge is to ensure the citizen’s right to privacy as enshrined by the constitution is not trampled upon, and that accountability is built into these systems from the start.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Will social media be a game changer for Indian politics?

Election fever has completely gripped the Indian media. Though general elections are scheduled for 2014, the news cycle regularly carries rumours of early elections every time another corruption scandal breaks. Pundits, analysts and party spokespersons, appearing on television every night, attempt to connect with India’s growing middle classes. And a big topic of conversation: the potential for social media to become a game changer in the next election, Mahima Kaul reports from New Delhi.

India’s large population and increasing teledensity, especially in urban pockets, has spurred an impressive jump in the number of people online. Moreover, a recent report released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and IRIS Knowledge Foundation has revealed that of India’s 543 constituences, 160 can be termed as ‘high impact’ — that is, they will most likely be influenced by social media in the next general elections. As the report explains, high impact constituencies are those where the numbers of Facebook users are more than the margin of victory of the winner in the last Lok Sabha election, or where Facebook users account for over 10% of the voting population. The study then goes onto declare 67 constituencies as medium-impact, 60 as low-impact and 256 as no-impact constituencies.

The study certainly seems to echo the general euphoria over social networking as a political tool. However, the number of Facebook users might not translate into any change in voting patterns -– in fact, for all we know most the 78 million Facebook users in India might not be interested in politics at all. The study, however, clearly seems to signal that the ability to connect with voters through this medium indicates that political impact could be high.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been the first national political party to have embraced technology to reach out to voters, with a Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube channel, mobile app and live streaming over the internet. Its controversial leader Narendra Modi –- who some believe could become India’s next prime minister -– has over 1,600,000 followers. Modi has also been quick to embrace digital technology including a 3D projection of an address in 53 places in the country at the same time. India’s other big national political party, the Congress Party is catching up. Media and IT cells have been set up with an eye towards elections, and one of their star politicians on social media, Shashi Tharoor, has over 1,700,000 followers.

There is some merit to this strategy, although in a nascent stage. Right now, there is a small but very active Twitter base in India that is highly political and there are constant fights between the right-wingers and the rest, which can be read as BJP-Congress fights. Major political episodes in the country become trending topics and both sides are able to make TV news headlines quite regularly. However, at this point it would be safe to assume that most middle class Indians experience political activity on Twitter through news reports on TV than actually by engaging with the medium themselves.

Even the politicians who have invested in social media are quite realistic about what it can do for them. Many of them, including Shashi Tharoor and Orissa-based politician Jay Panda admit that people from their own constituency are not following them on Twitter. Therefore, while they can reach a large number of people through the medium, as yet, they cannot swing an election based on social media.

As the middle class expands, more Indians are expected to get online. Young people are digital natives, and those who can afford smartphones are addicted to them. The general feeling is that politics needs to adapt to the habits and lifestyle of this demographic, and perhaps in that enthusiasm its real role gets overplayed in the media.

However, there is good reason to believe the future is closer than we might imagine. A recent election in the ‘modern’ city of Bangalore saw all politicians engage heavily with social media. And, India’s huge anti-corruption movement led by activist Anna Hazare and his colleague Arvind Kejriwal in April 2012 was almost entirely fuelled by media support and a very engaged online stategy. The movement led to an anti-corruption bill being tabled in Parliament. Many of the members of that movement have now formed the Aam Aadmi Party (literally translated into ‘ordinary man’ party) and rely very heavily on social media to reach their constituency – the middle class. However, Kejriwal only has just over 300,000 followers on Twitter, especially when compared to BJP’s Modi or Congress’s Tharoor. Kejriwal’s erstwhile movement, India Against Corruption has under 1,000,000 likes on Facebook. For a movement that aims to represent all of the middle class, the numbers don’t yet show their true potential.

And in the end, that might well be the final analysis of social media in India right now. The numbers, while impressive, do not yet indicate deep engagement and involvement in the political sphere. In 2014, politicians might do well to remember a computer screen is no match for campaigning in the heat and dust of the smallest corners of the country. Because, truly, that’s where their people are.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Saradha Group scandal exposes ties between India’s media, politicians

The discovery of a financial scam at a company in India’s West Bengal state is shining a light on the relationship between politicians and media owners, Mahima Kaul reports.

The firm in question, Saradha Group, had risen to become a financial empire over the past eight years under boss and owner Sudipta Sen. The company has business interests ranging from construction to travel to exports and agriculture. When the “chit fund” scandal came to light — with an estimated loss of $4-6 billion (US) to investors — Sen fled to Jammu and Kashmir, where he was ultimately arrested.

A chit-fund scandal, or “cheat fund” as some sections of the media are calling it, operates like a ponzi scheme. Sen duped many small and middle class investors into giving him their life savings, with promises of great returns. He managed to evade the regulators by using a nexus of companies to launder the money. The money collected was used to recklessly invest in a range of industries — including a mismanaged media empire. The government of West Bengal has had to set up a $2.5 million fund to ensure that the small investors are not bankrupted.

In a letter to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Sen claims to have been misled by a group of individuals who cheated investors by using his name, unbeknownst to him. However, the letter also shows how political patronage is obtained through acquiring media houses.

Saradha Group owns 18 newspapers and TV channels in West Bengal and Assam. These include Bengal Post, Sakalbela, Kalam, Paroma, Azad Hind, Prabhat Varta, Seven Sisters Post – and the TV channels, Tara Musik, Tara Newz, South Asia TV, and Channel 10, all under the umbrella of Saradha Printing and Publishing Pvt Ltd.

As Indian media blog the Hoot reports, “many senior journalists then suspected that media ownership was a matter of business strategy to establish the company’s credentials and also a bid to emerge as the mouthpiece of the major political party and perhaps get benefits in return.”

This view is supported by BBC journalist Sudhir Bhowmik, who says he left a job with the Saradha Group after he was told to “go soft on some leaders.”

It appears that Sen bought and built a media empire, allegedly on the behest of politicians of the ruling Trinamool Congress party, to play the part of a proganda-spinning machine for the government. This is no small feat – the net worth requirement of an applicant seeking to launch a news channel had been raised by the government from approximately $555,500 to $3,703,000, ostensibly to keep away “fly by night” operators away. But since Sen had already raised his financial portfolio, by dubious financial practises as we know now, he was able to take this step to becoming a media baron.

The curious case of the Saradha Group media empire gets murkier as the story unravels. In his letter to the CBI, Sen also claims to have been regularly blackmailed by Kunal Ghosh and Srinjoy Bose — two sitting Trinamool Congress members of the Upper House — into setting up his news channels. He also says he paid Ghosh $28,000 USD a month. Ghosh, now on the back foot, claims that he was simply a “salaried employee” and that he had “no authority to sign cheques.”

Sen’s use of the media empire to build political clout and protection is now being outlined by the national media. Influential members of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress party have been closely aligned with the media group. But some politicians are now distancing themselves from the group, despite having benefited from positive propaganda from its media outlets.

In India, which now has over 800 private satellite channels, media houses often favour particular political parties, and many are actually directed owned by politicians themselves. Amid growing unease, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has asked all channels to furnish details of their shareholding patterns and equity share. Both the ministry and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) have been looking to ways to ensure pluralism and diversity in the Indian media, and curbing monopolistic growth. They feel tracking ownership patterns might be one way of finding out which groups and individuals are involved in unethical behaviour like corporate and political lobbying, biased analysis and forecast in the political arena and sensationalism of news. The ministry has made it clear that if it finds any media group in violation of its license agreement – including shareholding patterns – it is ready to cancel licenses.

Meanwhile, another unfortunate result of the scandal is that more than 1,400 journalists are out of jobs, while some of Sen’s Channel 10 employees have filed a complaint with the police over non-payment of salaries by Sen and Ghosh.