Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Panel on Doordarshan: India, Internet - the way forward

I was recently on a panel on DD along with Dr Kamlesh Bajaj (CEO, DSCI) and Alok Prasad, ex Deputy NSA on "India and the Future of the Internet". Dr C Raja Mohan hosted the show on India and Internet Governance.

The links:

Part1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMU6y-NrZTE&list=TLrywsGJ8sqmZg9mbYCZlaJ9eq4Ew4UT1h

Part2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vARk4p4HXNU&list=UUKwucPzHZ7zCUIf7If-Wo1g

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Controversy surrounds India’s biometric database

Questions about the security of India's giant biometric database continue to be raised by privacy advocates

Established in 2009 by executive order, the Unique Identification Number Authority of India (UIDAI) has taken on the monumental challenge of issuing each resident of the country with a Unique Identification Number (UID), more commonly known as the Aadhaar card. The driving idea behind the card was to ensure that residents could have a singular identification card that can eliminate duplicate and fake identities and also can be verified in a cost effective manner. Biometrics are the primary method for identification, while other details such as addresses, family, and even bank accounts are linked to the card.

Recently, the UIDAI was in the news as it challenged an order by the Goa High Court to share biometric details of all enrolled Goa residents with India’s Central Bureau of Investigation in order to solve an investigation. The Supreme Court of India ruled that UIDAI did not need to share its data with any agency of the government without the consent of those in its database. In his blog, the former Chairman of UIDAI (and currently running for a seat in India’s hotly contested national elections) Nandan Nilekani wrote: “We have always stated that the data collected from residents would remain private, and not be shared with other agencies.”

An audible sigh of relief was heard in the media from privacy activists who were concerned that the data collected by the UIDAI would be easily accessed by any government agency once it was in the system. This concern for privacy and data protection isn’t completely unfounded. Indian media has reported on grave gaps in the data collection process. In March 2013, a Mumbai paper reported that data collected from residents in 2011 was still lying around in cupboards in a suburb, despite the area residents repeatedly reminding the authorities to take away the information.  The same state had, in 2013,  “admitted the loss of personal data of about 3 lakh [100,000] applicants for Aadhaar card”, an error that sparked concerns over possible misuse of the data, not to mention the trouble of having to register personal data all over again. According to the report, the data had been lost while uploading from the state information technology department to the UIDAI central server in Bangalore, Karnataka. Government officials tried to assure the public that the data was highly encrypted and could not be misused. However, this incident wasn’t unprecedented. Just the year before, veteran journalist P. Sainath of the Hindu had highlighted this issue in a talk, saying that: “You can buy that data on the streets of Mumbai. It’s already made its way there. What sort of national security will you have when your biometric data is up for grabs all around the planet? You outsourced it to subcontractors who have subcontracted it to further people. It’s now available on the streets of Mumbai, biometric data.”

Given that the government has spent Rs 3800 crore (around $600 million) on the project already, it is interesting to note that India has not yet passed a privacy law, a comprehensive data protection law and nor did the parliament pass the National Identification Authority of India Bill, which was rejected by a parliamentary standing committee on finance in 2011. As was reported at the time, the standing committee rejected the report on the grounds that the scheme had “no clarity of purpose and leaving many things to be sorted out during the course of its implementation; and is being implemented in a directionless way with a lot of confusion”. It also went on to raise concerns about privacy, identity theft, misuse, security of data and duplication during the implementation of the UID scheme, and cited global examples of similar schemes that were rejected.

However, it is useful to see the guiding principles behind the implementation of the scheme that made it so attractive to the Congress-led UPA II government. The spirit of UID seems to lie in two guiding principles; using Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to make government more effective, and entering the data game. In a recent interview to the Economic Times, Shrikant Nadhamuni, who headed technology for UIDAI is quoted as saying: “We wanted to move the ID game—from a state where some people had no ID and others had paper ID to something beyond even what Singapore had, in the form of smart cards, to online. Like biometric. Which is the future.”

The basis of the design of what was to become the UID was also laid out in the Report of the Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects, submitted to the Ministry of Finance in 2011, headed by Nandan Nilekani, a respected figure in Indian business and later to become CEO of UIDAI. Others involved with the report were the chairman of the Security and Exchange Bureau of India (SEBI), the secretary, Department of Telecommunications of the Government of India, the chairman of the privately owned IFMR trust which seeks to ensure that every individual and enterprise has access to financial services, and a few other experts on the subject. Many government officers constituted the secretariat. The report put out some revolutionary ideas about how to integrate private expertise into the public sector. It deduces that “the most important lesson that needs to be acted upon is that business change’ should drive the design and implementation of these projects”.
This was to be done by implementing a National Information Utility (NIU), which would be private companies with a public purpose: profit-making, not-profit maximising. The NIU would be flexible in its functioning, and the government would keep strategic control over the project. Private ownership of the project should be at least 51% and the government’s share at least 26%. Once the NIU is to become steady, the government would become a paying customer and would be free to take its business elsewhere. However, the report also admits that given the massive investments in building the NIUs, they would essentially be set up to be natural monopolies. At the time, the report had looked at the following schemes of the Indian government: Goods and Services Tax (GST), Tax Information Network (TIN), Expenditure Information Network (EIN), National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) and New Pension System (NPS). The first Unique Project to take off, however, was the UIDAI.

This strategy raised red flags as well. Usha Ramanathan, an academic activist, wrote in Moneylife that: “In this set-up, we are witnessing the emergence of an information infrastructure, which the government helps — by financing and facilitating the ‘start-up’, and by the use of coercion to get people on to the database — which it will then hand over to corporate interests when it reaches a ‘steady state’.” She continues in the same piece that: “The NIU was not explained to parliament, and no one seems to have raised any questions about what it is. This, then, is the story of how the ownership of governmental data by private entities is silently slipping into the system.”
Controversies surround the Aadhar project. Nilekani, who was appointed Chairperson of UIDAI in 2009 by the current UPA government, and simultaneously given the rank of a cabinet minister, is increasingly in the news because rumours are swirling in India that a new government might choose to shelve the project. The card, that was envisioned to become an almost one-stop-shop in the future years regarding the delivery of welfare schemes and subsidies, is no longer mandatory to avail some of these, according to India’s Supreme Court. This is a setback to the government that considered the Aadhar card a method to plug “leaks” in the government delivery systems.  Despite this, reports of data leakage, and even stories of fake Aadhar cards making their way into the news, the current establishment seems hopeful. The deputy chairman of India’s Planning Commission, Montek Ahluwalia, made a statement that the card did not require a legal basis to be used for transferring benefits to citizens, much in the same way citizens are not legally required to hold degrees to gain jobs.

The UIDAI project remains complex – a herculean task. The UK government shelved its identity card project because it was untested and the technology not secure, and because of the risks to the safety and security of citizens. With India in the midst of an election, it remains to be seen what will happen when a new government is formed, and whether the country can succeed in this task.


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Internet Governance Debates Gain Steam Within India

The conversation about internet governance has started making headlines in India over the past few months. Much of this can be traced back to the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, that broke the controversial news that US government had used top internet service providers and even content providers to carry out surveillance across the world. The same country, which had been extoling the virtues of the right to privacy among many other freedoms, had been caught abusing the trust of both its own citizens and of other countries across the world. Reactions were very sharp. German chancellor, Angel Merkel, livid that the Americans had been listening in on her conversations had even proposed building a secure European network as a reaction to US spying. Similarly, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, announced that the country would host its on internet conference in April 2014, as a reaction to ‘massive US electronic spying on its territory.’

In a run up to the conference in Brazil – now known as Netmundial – the body that assigns internetdomain names, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which till recently had been under the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) made a big, although expected, announcement. The US was ready to give up control of ICANN and hand over its running to a multistakeholder model, which essentially means that in the new mechanism, all stakeholders of the global internet community will sit together to deliberate the future of any ICANN decisions once the transition is complete. When multistakeholderism in internet governance emerged, during the UN-led World Summit on Information Society in Tunis in 2005, the main reason was that governments pushed observers out of the rooms during certain talks, and civil society and business felt that especially when it came to a resource as open as the internet, as users they had a say in its development. At the time, multistakeholderism seemed like a novel “bottom up” type of governance, especially suited to the internet which has more than one stakeholder vested in its development. However, today, almost a decade later, many governments are wary of allowing business and civil society an equal seat at international negotiations, as this would mean that these groups could bind together out overpower certain state interests, for commercial or other purposes.

This includes India, which would rather have a government-led body at the international level. In fact, in 2011, India proposed a United Nations-led body to deliberate on internet issues in the international fora, an idea that was vehemently rejected by many civil society and business activists in India. The government has not changed its stance today, however, it is willing to give up its idea for a UN led body, but instead, does call for a government-led body at the international level.

A peek inside the government of India’s submission to Netmundial sheds light on the reasoning behind this move. Drafted by the Ministry of External affairs (perhaps putting internet governance squarely in the foreign policy domain now), it makes a few points, including:
  • Governance of the Internet is quite complex and involves range of issues of varied nature such as technical, legal, public policy, equitable access, privacy and security of the infrastructure and information. Given that the core infrastructure of the Internet is not protected by any international legal regime, it is important to shape a globally acceptable legal regime to maintain the openness, security and international trust in the Internet.
  • The management of Internet encompasses both technical and public policy issues and should involve all stakeholders and relevant intergovernmental and international organisations. Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of states.
Therefore, there can be no doubt, that unlike the US government’s position, the Indian government has not given a nod to multistakeholderism as the international mechanism for governing the internet. This is especially pertinent if internet governance negotiations are going to be added to the foreign policy bouquet of the Indian government.

There are many reasons for the differing positions. In a paper looking forward to the mechanics of the Brazil conference – using multistakeholder process – Professor Milton Mueller puts these differing positions in historical context pitting the government-led camp as “state actors who take a national sovereignty- oriented approach to global Internet governance. It includes a large number of developing countries as well as the large emerging economies such as China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa… These countries tend to be critical of US global hegemony and unenthusiastic, at best, about the so-called multistakeholder or private sector-led Internet governance institutions, which they see as creatures of the US.” The other group, Mueller writes, is “civil society and the private sector… roughly allied in their support for what they call “the multistakeholder model” (MSM). MSM refers to the native Internet governance institutions that are generally private sector nonprofits. The private sector contains representatives of the Internet technical community, including the Internet governance institutions themselves (ICANN, Regional Internet Registries, the IETF, W3C and the Internet Society), and multinational Internet and telecommunication businesses such as AT&T, Verizon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. European states, Japan, and of course the U.S. government are, for the most part, in this camp.”

In fact, according to reports, it can well be expected that the proceedings at Netmundial – using a multistakeholder process – will be a test to how that kind of system would even work. One of the main reasons for governments rejected multistakeholder (MSM) processes has been legitimacy. Popularly, according to MSM – ‘everyone gets a seat at the table.’ However, reports from Brazil have indicated that designing a system to ensure equal participation for all at Netmundial has been very tough, given the number of participants.

Back in India, it is certainly not the case that multistakeholderism has been rejected in its entirety. The government believes in multistakeholderism at home, and multilateralism abroad. Many groups have been formed to deliberate on these issues, and Indian civil society and business routinely hold talks and submit reports to the Indian government on their positions regarding various facets on cyber governance and security. In what might be a healthy sign, and quite indicative of Indian democracy, different groups within the internet governance space are already jostling for pride of place in international discussions. This is a far cry from what seemed to be two broad camps in Indian civil society discussions: those that agreed with the government’s view of government-led unilateralism, and those that promoted the multilateral way. Informally, the government of India has made it clear that it believes the civil society and business groups representing ‘Indians’ are not yet a diverse group and not representative of the larger country. To that end, it must be kept in mind by the government that they might not like everyone sitting at the table, or what they represent, however, that itself is the whole point of a multistakeholder approach. Indian society is only just adjusting to the online experience and in the coming years, one can expect more groups to emerge, making discussions on internet governance even more contested than what they are today.

In the end, India’s growing digital economy, its frequent law and order problems because of tensions in its diverse polity that the government maintains is fuelled by unchecked social media, and its goal to connect a billion people to the internet at a variety of price points are only some of the reasons the Indian state has chosen to espouse a state-led mechanism for internet governance. However, at the same time, one must remember that it is civil society and media outrage that led the Indian government to ensure the IT Act, 2000 (including the infamous section 66a) is not easily abused, and businesses including the US-owned Google that released transparency reports that help people understand the behind-the-scenes workings of the government. All actors have their place at the table, be it at the state or international level. It is not a satisfying meal without them there.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Book Review: What Makes Hindi Journalism Tick

I picked up Per Stahlberg’s book, or rather, his doctoral thesis, Writing Society through Media: Ethnography of a Hindi Daily with a lot of interest. A keen look into what makes Hindi journalism tick, especially seen through the lens of a journalist working in the Hindi heartland) is a fascinating topic. I used to work in a newspaper myself, have travelled in Uttar Pradesh, and been for a few media conferences with Hindi journalists from the state, and heard from them their opinions on the condition of journalism, the increasing trend of paid news and concerns over caste equations in the offices. From that point of departure, the book didn’t present new material to me personally, though I did enjoy revisiting media theory and some of Stahlberg’s observations about the nature of Indian journalism, and Indians in general.

However, that Stahlberg has chosen to deconstruct Hindi journalism in particular is a welcome choice. Especially given the times we live in, much attention is given to the ways of TV news media and social media. And in the big cities like New Delhi, where I live, not much is known about the vernacular media except that it carries highly local news. Analysing the quick growth of the vernacular media, Stahlberg credits increase in literacy as one factor, the new technology of the offset press, computer typesetting and computer modem as another, allowing vernacular languages to be printed with ease, and finally, a shift in the structure of ownership, with an increasing number of businessmen and politicians looking at the newspaper industry as a commercial venture. Another point that Stahlberg refers to in the book is how Indians, denied any real news during the era of the Indira Gandhi-led emergency, devoured the news once it returned to them. Another reason that led to the rise of vernacular journalism, and in particular Hindi journalism, was the rise of Hindi nationalism and the focus on promoting the Hindi language in Uttar Pradesh by both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party.

Stahlberg spends some time tracing the history of newspapers in India, and in particular their relationship with the freedom movement, which is valuable to those who might not be familiar with the topic. Next, he chooses to focus on Lucknow newspapers and their overall ‘look’, describing the kinds of headlines, articles, photographs and snip- pets that dot the front page and subsequent inside pages. Ironically, or perhaps on purpose, there are no photographs to accompany these descriptions of the newspaper pages. He finds the papers divided into the geographies of Uttar Pradesh, India and the world, with most of the papers’ emphasis being on local- state news. He also finds that as much as New Delhi is an euphemism for the central government, Lucknow is used to convey the decisions of the State government.

Stahlberg refers to a ‘moderately sensational crime’ that was being reported in the papers, that of a headless corpse being found in a jute bag, later discovered to have been part of a ritual sacrifice in the house of a politician. Stahlberg comments that this moderately sensational story took precedence over a water resource dispute between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and the announcement of a new chairman of a political alliance.

Stahlberg attempts to map society through the emphasis given to various kinds of information in the newspaper. Referring to the increased space given to feature stories, he concludes that the newspaper as a product is published as a ‘family newspaper’ with space for all members of the family to enjoy.

However, a lot of Stahlberg’s meat comes in his dealings with the mechanics of the newspaper and the journalists employed. It is no surprise that he finds it both difficult and enjoyable to describe the chaotic way in which the office of Dainik Jagran functions—the paper he focuses the rest of his attention on. He describes the working style of the editor, Vinod Shukla—‘all mail for every department in the building first passed over his desk. That was how he knew all the details of the business.’ To Stahlberg’s surprise, Shukla prefers to give his journalists unspecific designations so that they don’t feel entitled to anything in particular, but does not shy away from as- signing responsibility. He hires on the basis of a loyalty, and prefers candidates with no experience as he feels it will be easier for them to adjust with his personal style of functioning. In describing work routines, Stahlberg notes that most of the time editors ask for pitches from the reporters rather than handing out assignments. Some of them are, of course, and many grumble if that particular assignment is far away from time as it might prove to be too time consuming.

Next, Stahlberg follows reporters as they gather information, stopping in their prover- bial watering holes for information. He describes government offices and officials as crowded, with reporters hanging around gathering information. In his research, he notes that many journalists find joy in their proximity to powerful officials, and are able to call in favours from time to time. They even apply for government sanctioned housing, though few get it. The journalists in the Hindi papers are more cohesive—as he writes, ‘it is in no way an overgeneralization to describe the Hindi journalist as a quite young, male, Hindu Brahmin with a university education.’ Comparing them with their colleagues in English papers, Stahlberg also notes that there are far less women, and those from other religious communities.

Stahlberg also finds many journalists admit to falling into the vocation when they did not achieve some other goal—perhaps to join the Indian Administrative Service. Others view journalism as the family vocation. He

also observes the rate of attrition, with journalists constantly moving among newspapers, often moving cities. Stahlberg notes that it is extremely rare to see one kind of shift—that of journalists moving between English and Hindi publications—mainly attributed to the kinds of schools they went to. He says that often a senior editor moves papers, taking along his core team with him. In that one move, while one paper loses a core team the other gains it. Stahlberg also seems to find that an individual reporter does not suffer consequences because of an incorrect report, but that the editor seems to accept a vague institutional blame for it. Reports that have incited controversies because of ham-handed reporting have, in his view, not limited the future career of the reporter.

In the end, Stahlberg tries to understand how the mass media constructs its own reality—what the editor of Dainik Jagran would think it is headline news—and what the real status of Hindi news is in the country. Refer- ring to an interview that the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee chose to give to a Hindi daily over an English one, Stahlberg concludes that the importance of Hindi journalism is certainly growing.

The range of information given by Stahlberg is certainly interesting, especially as he is a Swedish researcher with no prior knowledge about India’s media industry. In trying to answer the question of what makes the vernacular press of the Hindi heartland tick, Stahlberg talks of the ‘closeness’ the Hindi press feels it has with its audience, therefore focusing on local matters, as well as the journalists’ own sense of pride at his/her byline.

Ultimately, the book is an academic overview—a dissection of a Hindi newspaper and the universe it inhabits—but it falls short of being a fascinating read. A few tidbits, such as the journalists’ apparent lack of competition with each other—even when from rival papers—is interesting but one can assume it extends only to those who are covering beats that involve attending many press conferences. One cannot assume the same for those doing investigative journalism. At the same time, while Stahlberg has painfully described the kinds of information placed in the newspaper and the space given to each section, I would have liked to see further analysis in why that is so. The same can be said for why recruitment of more journalists from different castes, genders and religions was not carried out; instead of just being told that it wasn’t.

In a sense, the book is a satisfying description but not a satisfying investigation.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Index: As internet matures India faces a choice on governance

For many years, the Indian public in particular, had very little interest in who controlled the internet and decisions taken at a structural level that shaped its future.

The press carried little tidbits about the World Summit on Information Society; a pair of United Nations-sponsored conferences about information, communication and, with an aim to bridge the so-called global digital divide separating rich countries from poor countries by spreading access to the internet in the developing world, the UN body, International Telecommunications Union (ITU); which coordinates the shared global use of the radio spectrum, promotes international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, works to improve telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world, and assists in the development and coordination of worldwide technical standards, and Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which coordinates the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions, which are key technical services critical to the continued operations of the Internet’s underlying address book, the Domain Name System (DNS) and also UN Commission of Science and Technology Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation, where governments come together to discuss issues like internet governance.

What was commonly known followed a similar trajectory: America invented the internet, it is a global commons, and it works well.

Over the last few years, however, as the Indian experience with the internet has matured, questions of governance, both internally and externally have started making headlines. Allegations of mass surveillance have hogged all headlines. Another factor cannot be missed: the Indian digital economy is growing rapidly, and while internet governance is nowhere close to being an election issue in India, domestically, access, freedom of expression, cyber crime and cyber security are growing concerns. There also the reality that as India’s population gets increasingly connected, it will host one of the biggest online demographies in the world. Therefore, India’s views and actions in terms of how the internet should grow and be governed is crucial to the future of the internet itself.

In October 2011, the Indian government proposed that a UN Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) be formed, so that governments can debate and deliberate on vital issues such as intellectual property enforcement, privacy and data protection, online filtering and censorship and network neutrality. Those opposed to the idea have warned that the “open” nature of the internet will be threatened by governments who favor a controlled and censored form of the internet. Also the proposed structure of the UN-CIRP seemed to be the very anti-thesis of a dynamic internet; it involved setting up a 50 member committee that only met for two weeks in the year. Those opposed to this bureaucratic suggestion, instead, favour a multi-stakeholder transnational governance mechanism, which gives all stakeholders of the internet a place on the table; including governments, businesses and civil society members.

The last few months of 2013 were very active internationally, on questions of internet governance. Three big international events made headlines, and India’s role in them is especially telling. The first was the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Indonesia in November. This event brought together all members of civil society on a common platform to deliberate on the rules of global governance, but in effect did not have any binding powers. Given that it was held in the wake of the Snowden revelations of NSA surveillance, the conversations centered around the need to ensure better protection of all citizens in the online environment and to reach a proper balance between actions driven by national security and respect for freedom of expression, privacy and human rights. While in the 2012 IGF, India’s Minister for Communication Technology had been present, in 2013, was “extremely small” according to Dr Anja Kovaks who participated there. She added that, “many developing countries look up to India’s engagement with internet-governance forums to ensure that the concerns of the developing world are not ignored during policy-making.”

In December, 2013, the UN Commission of Science and Technology Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation released a statement which also carried India’s proposal that, “The UN General Assembly could embark on creation of a multilateral body for formulation of international Internet-related public policies. The proposed body should include all stakeholders and relevant inter-governmental and international organisations in advisory capacity within their respective roles as identified in Tunis agenda and WGIG report. Such body should also develop globally applicable principles on public policy issues associated with the coordination and management of critical Internet resources.” Earlier this year, a note written by India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), leaked to an Indian newspaper in March 2014, warns of the DNS system under US control, and goes on to say that “India’s position is aligned with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran who also want governments to collectively drive internet management worldwide…” It adds that, “trust in the internet has declined and India’s objective in the Geneva session was to ensure its concerns are accommodated in whatever international regime of Internet governance finally emerges.”

However, in the backdrop of continuing internet governance discussions, came the announcement by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff that in the light of revelations of global mass surveillance by the US, Brazil was going to host an internet governance conference — NETmundial — in April 2014. This announcement was made after consulting the head of ICANN, Fadi Chehde. In contrast, the Indian reaction to these revelations seemed rather muted, perhaps because India too is building a mass surveillance regime within its national borders. It is also believed that Brazil asked India take a bigger role with them, however, Indian foreign ministry officials have stated off-the-record that details about the conference were not easy to come by from Brazil. Either way, the conference dates coincide with Indian general elections of 2014 and the formation of a new national government, and will most likely see a small Indian delegation.

A month before the Brazil conference comes the announcement by the United States government that the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration will end its formal relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in late 2015, with ICANN developing a new global governance model. It has been made clear by the ICANN President and CEO Fadi ChehadĂ© that the transition out of NTIA was “not a final decision to surrender control of the internet” or about announcing a new law or policy. “The [U.S.] government also set clear boundaries for that discussion, including a very clear statement that it will not release control of these functions to any government-led or inter-governmental organization solution.” Former CEO of ICANN Rod Beckstorm gave an interview in which he speculated that the US government made the announcement now “because they face the serious risk of losing even more at the upcoming NETmundial conference on internet governance in Brazil. This event could potentially lead to greater United Nations control over the internet and open the door to increased influence by countries opposed to a free and open internet.”

This, of course, is a hint that the US government would rather restructure ICANN and keep the multistakeholder approach towards internet governance open, rather than let some governments steer the course towards a government led body governing the internet.

In a reaction to the announcement, Member of Parliament and vocal critic of the Indian government’s position, Rajeev Chandrasekhar told Index that “India needs to think ahead, because its position on the governance of the internet and its inexplicable alliance with China, Saudi Arabia on this issue has been based on the so called US control of the net. First, the Ministry of External Affairs’s entrenched position of a UN body needs to be withdrawn forthwith. I have substantiated its problems at multiple levels. India has lost its leadership status to Brazil in the internet governance space, thanks to government’s position, and reflects complete failure of thought by Indian leadership.” Looking towards the future, Chandrasekhar added that, “the new government needs to hold national, open public consultation on the issue. Parliament needs to be involved. Governments want to regulate; industry invests, builds infrastructure and drives innovation; and civil society/academia protects civil ideals and users’ interest, including privacy, free speech and human rights. A free, open, safe, secure and truly global internet can only be managed through a multi-stakeholder mechanism with specific areas of intergovernmental cooperation, such as cyber terrorism, international jurisdiction.”

Other civil society voices, too, have called for the Indian government to rise to this new challenge. Security expert, Dr. Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express that, “Delhi has a long record of posturing at multilateral forums and shooting itself in the foot when it comes to national interest. Believe it or not, in the 1970s, India opposed, at the UN, the direct broadcast satellite technology in the name of protecting its territorial sovereignty. With an IT sector that is deeply integrated with the global economy and contributing nearly 8 per cent of India’s GDP as well as the world’s third-largest group of internet users, India does not have the luxury of quixotic pursuits. Delhi’s negotiating position must be rooted firmly in India’s economic interests. Issue-based coalitions — with countries, companies and civil society groups — are critical for ensuring the best possible outcomes.”

Given the Indian government’s taste for pushing unilateral mechanisms for governing the internet at an international level, and Indian civil society, which for the most part seems to vocally support a multistakeholder approach, the Indian elections might bring about a new opportunity for both sides to find clarity. Some argue that multistakeholder models give an equal seat to governments like the US, but also to their corporate giants such as Google, Facebook, AT&T, which might help them secure a majority over crucial issues and therefore an international unilateral model might be beneficial for smaller countries. Alternatively, a government-led model, as India suggests, pre-supposes a consultative mechanism within countries so that the will of the people can be reflected. One thing is clear, with its technology boom, population, and growing dependence on the internet for economic prosperity, governance and free expression, the country can no longer afford to not assume a leadership role in this area, while at the same time sticking to its core democratic principles. It needs to rise to its leadership potential and reflect the will of its people.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Index: Cricket cheering uncovers faultlines between Kashmir and India

Improbable as it may seem, but 67 Kashmiri university students were briefly charged with sedition for cheering for Pakistan, and celebrating its win over India, during an Asia Cup cricket match in early March.

Sections of the Indian Penal Code that they were charged under were the following:

Section 124a – “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law..”

Section 153 – “Whoever malignantly, or wantonly by doing anything which is illegal, gives provocation to any person intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause the offence of rioting to be committed shall..”

Section 427 – “Whoever commits mischief and thereby causes loss or damage to the amount of fifty rupees or upwards..”

The students were watching the match in Meerut, at the Swami Vivekanand Subharti University when the ruckus started. According to conflicting reports, the hooting of the Kashmiri students at Pakistan’s win caused those supporting India to chase them and throw stones at their rooms. The Kashmiri students protested the next day, but the university officials suspended them for three days as “resentment was growing in other hostels because of their behavior.” The police charged them under the Indian Penal Code. After a public outcry, the Uttar Pradesh police dropped the charges, however, there is a battle of words between the police and university officials as to who initiated the charges against the students.

The incident, once again, has exposed the fragile faultlines between Kashmir and India – and the perceived disloyalty of the Kashmiri Muslims to India. The controversy has brought about some harsh reactions, including a tweet by famous lyricist Javed Akhtar that said – “Why the suspension of those 67 Kashmiri students who cheered Pakistan is revoked. They should be rusticated and sent back to Kashmir.” Others, like Shivam Vij, took a more nuanced position, stating that, “not taking action against them would have escalated the violence at the university and in the city. The Indian students at the university were responding with the same sentiment that makes Kashmiri Muslims suspect their Hindu minority: the sentiment of nationalism. How acceptable would it be to a Pakistani if some in Pakistan openly and publicly cheered for the Indian cricket team in a match against Pakistan?”

Tidbits from Kashmir also help cement this view of the Muslims from the Kashmir Valley to the rest of India. Reports that firecrackers celebrated Pakistan’s win all night, and that a skirmish between Indian army personnel and local Kashmir youth celebrating the results of the match ended in a stabbing. There have also been defiant editorials from Pakistan countering the action against the students, declaring that, “it is not the win of Pakistan but the loss of India against any cricket playing nation that revives interest for cricket in Kashmir. India’s loss is a temporary relief from all the melancholy and grief that the people of Kashmir go through on a daily basis, inflicted by the Indian state and its military architecture.”

While this incident in question might have, on the surface, been about cricket and extremely ungentlemanly behavior, very quickly it seemed to have translated into politics as usual. A outcry about serious charges against university students – Kashmiris who had travelled far from home to obtain an Indian degree – was raised by many Indians in the media, by the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and international groups. Many of these students were in Meerut given under the PMSSS, or the Prime Minister’s Special Scholarship Scheme, meant to enhance job opportunities for Kashmiri youth, meant mainly for low-income families. This is part of a larger drive to assimilate Kashmiri youth into the mainstream economic and educational life of India.

Indian Express’s Shekhar Gupta lamented the controversy given cricket’s globalized nature where it is increasingly normal to cheer for favourite player from another country. Instead he feels that “India’s majority has a minority complex” and this is coming to the fore “when the BJP is surging ahead, and not because of any mandir, tension with Pakistan, or rash of terror attacks. And when, in fairness, you have to acknowledge that there isn’t even a vaguely communal appeal in its leader Narendra Modi’s campaign message. India has had a 13-year period of total peace, unprecedented in its independent history. There has been a steep decline in terror incidents. Even the Maoists seem to be shrinking slowly. And yet, our level of jingoism is as if we were approaching an imminent war, as if India were under siege, its borders getting violated with impunity, the enemy at the gates.” Many echo Gupta’s view, fearing that those who believe the BJP under Narendra Modi will form government after the elections in April 2014, might be quick to adopt the jingoistic Hindu nationalism the party was based on.

Adding a layer to this incident is an interesting point of view offered by journalist Prayaag Akbar who writes about India’s many Muslims who feel affinity towards Pakistani cricket team, but are rarely called out for it, unlike the Kashmiri Muslims. He writes – “that some Indian Muslims, not just Kashmiris, support Pakistan during cricket matches must be acknowledged. But categorisation is self-fulfilling, some will say, and sport excites tribalism. It does not immediately follow—and this seems to be the consideration at the crux of the issue—that they will support Pakistan in a war against India. Yet it does not immediately follow that they will not, either. No one on either side of the debate can assert their position with complete confidence. What we can say with certainty is there has been a failure of assimilation, that has in part been caused by a rarely acknowledged, yet generally accepted, narrowed definition of what it means to be Indian.”

Cricket, criticisms and cartoons cannot be simply deemed seditious by the Uttar Pradesh police because they are problematic. And, ironically, this is in the shadow of the largest democratic exercise in the world, the Indian elections, a month away.


Friday, February 28, 2014

The rise of "libel chill" in India

Omair Ahmad, author of ‘Jimmy the Terrorist’ and ‘The Storyteller’s Tale’ has written to his publisher, Penguin India, to cancel his contracts so that he does not feel hypocritical criticizing them. Ahmad’s statement follows closely behind a strongly worded letter by author and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, who asked, “You must tell us what happened. What terrified you?”

The reactions by Ahmad, Roy and other Indian authors and columnists have been prompted by Penguin India’s decision to pulp all remaining copies of American author Wendy Doniger’s controversial book – The Hindus: An Alternative History. This decision came after pressure put on the publisher from a lawsuit filed in 2010 by Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee (The Movement to Save Education) which claimed the book contained heresies and factual inaccuracies.
For its part, Penguin India claimed that it settled the four-year suit in part due to the Indian Penal Code that makes it “increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression.” It went onto cite section 295A which threatens up to three years imprisonment against those who “with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens in India, by words, either spoken or written … insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class.” International copies of the book are still available. And, predictably, the book can be illegally downloaded over the internet.

Reactions in India have been mixed. There are those who support Penguin’s decision, as there is a worry that the book places forward a highly sexually charged version of Hinduism, offensive to many devout Hindus. Offensive enough for a group to move the Court against such a book, as is their legal right. However, what has shocked many is that Penguin succumbed to pressure to remove the book from the Indian market without their even being a court order forcing them to do so. As a reaction, the Bangalore based Alternative Law Forum has issued a legal notice to Penguin India claiming the publisher has violated freedom of speech laws and its readers’ rights. The Hindustan Times carried an article criticizing Chiki Sarkar, the publisher of Penguin India, for not keeping her word of October 2012 to “take the next injunction we are faced with and really fight it out.” This, to many, is just another case of self-censorship by so-called liberals because of pressure from right-wing fringe groups who “morally police” Indian society. This is indeed a rising trend in India, as is evident by the growing numbers of reports in the news highlighting cases of exhibitions being cancelled and more famously, stopping authors like Salman Rushdie to appear at literary book festivals.

In a passionate editorial, commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta has hit out at liberals, so called defenders of free speech for failing themselves. As he writes: “Liberal India has been silenced because it never understood that toleration does not, to use Govind Ranade’s phrase, come in halves. You cannot pick and choose when to be tolerant. You cannot choose to be tolerant along partisan lines. Neither can you choose to be tolerant based on what you think are distinctions between good and bad scholarship, serious and scurrilous books. These distinctions are a good basis for criticism; they are not the best basis for deciding whom the law will protect. And R.V. Bhasin, author of a banned book on Islam, will be protected as much as Wendy Doniger. And so it should be. If you want a hundred flowers to bloom, a few weeds will grow as well.”

Bhanu is right. Attacks on freedom of speech aren’t always prompted only by religious groups. It was only in January 2014 that the media reported that ex-bureaucrat Jintender Bhargava’s book India’s national airline, Air India, was being withdrawn by publisher Bloomsbury, with leftover stocks being destroyed, as well as an apology to former civil aviation minister Praful Patel, who has been pilloried in the book as the man who caused the downfall of the airline. Bhargava found that television discussions about his book were cancelled for reasons unknown to him, and despite an ensuing legal battle – ex-minister Patel has filed defamation cases against him which are yet to be settled — the publisher chose to settle the matter with Patel.

In an article on the matter, Medianama reported that the author, Bhargava, chose to keep the rights of the book for himself and is now looking for another publisher or to release the book online. This, the site reports, is possibly “a sign of things to come.”

Could this also be yet another sign of things to come: What it is now being described as the phenomenon of “libel chill” in India. This means using money to start libel suits the moment someone criticizes them. The Hoot reports of yet another case towards the end of 2013, where giant group Sahara India filed a case against Tamal Bandopadhyay, journalist and author and his publisher Jaico India, for damages of a whopping Rs 2 billion and a perpetual injunction restraining them from publishing or circulating or releasing the book, Sahara : The Untold $tory, in any form.

In these cases, what is the role of the publisher? Can Penguin India be held to a higher standard – one that would involve years of costly litigation – or can they be forgiven for taking a business decision that means they give up on their authors who are left to fend for themselves? Should writers of sensitive subjects look to retaining the rights to their books lest they need a new publisher, or explore digital publishing because the trend seems to indicate publishers might not wait for a court order to stop publishing certain books.

The final answer, then perhaps, lies in the solving of “blatant abuse of libel and defamation laws by corporations and individuals in positions of power, to silence critical voices”, as described by Gautam Bhatia in Outlook magazine. He offers a solution: In the interest of free speech the court must protect journalists and authors who do not willfully or with reckless regard publish what they know to be wrong. As he writes, “it is possible that the pendulum will swing the other way, and the threat of an unrestrained and irresponsible media can never be discounted… undesirable though the prospect of an unaccountable media is, the prospect of a silenced media is far worse.”

The courts must stand up for freedom of expression in India, and publishers and authors need to know that principles of free speech are worth fighting for, and self-censorship isn’t the new order of business. It is absolutely no coincidence that India has been ranked among the worst countries (140 of 180 countries) on the World Press Freedom Index in 2014.