Freedom in Cyberspace in the Context of India: Video documentary

Abstract: How do we preserve the Net’s core values and open architecture without encouraging anarchy yet at the same time not allow cyberspace to be smothered by superfluous and numbing regulations? The proposed documentary, the first attempt of its kind to understand the issues related to freedom in cyberspace in the context of a developing country like India, asks this critical question and tries to seek answers to it. The documentary will also be a reminder that while we debate these issues, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a huge digital divide exists in our country and all notions of technological freedom and individual empowerment are superfluous while it does.

Bio: Rudradeep Bhattacharjee is an aspiring film-maker living in Mumbai. He has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Film and Television Production from Xavier Institute of Communicatons, Mumbai. He describes himself as a generalist. He does not have any hobbies.

Email: bhatt_rudra @ yahoo.com

1/28/06
Greetings, fellow Fellows (and everyone else who’s listening in)
A brief personal intro: The name is Rudradeep Bhattacharjee. I was born in Shillong (hi, Janice!) and spent most of my short life there till the film-bug got me and I decided to move to Mumbai. I have been in this city for about five years now trying to eke out a living while hoping to go independent.

The guys at Sarai have finally given me an opportunity. Thanks, you guys rock!!!
Now, about the project. Well, this is actually a documentary film on the theme ‘Cyberspace and Freedom in the context of India.’ I have included the proposal below. The blog will soon be up. Will keep everyone posted. I’m also looking for further funding to make this documentary. Any ideas about potential sponsors, anyone? Also, I think this project will be like writing open-source code; it requires the participation and collaboration of others to build the final edifice that will be the film. So, comments, reactions, ideas, opinions, criticism, all are welcome.

Virtually yours,
Deep.
PS: Mumbai Fellows, we should try to set up a meeting, what say you?


ABOUT THE FILM:

‘In cyberspace, borders and national sovereignty lose meaning, and the individual reigns’. This represents the core statement of what has been termed as ‘cyberspace libertarianism’.
To understand this point of view it is imperative we look at the architecture of the Internet. At the heart of the Internet’s design is an architectural principle termed as ‘end-to-end’ (or e2e). This essentially means that intelligence is located at the ends and not in the network itself. The core of the network merely provides a data transfer facility. While this greatly enhances efficiency, it also means that the network will be open and neutral with respect to the content it transfers. This e2e design principle implicitly embodies certain values, such as freedom and equality.This, coupled with the fact that there is no central server that can be easily contained and the Net’s vast global reach which transcends the jurisdiction of national governments, makes cyberspace apparently impossible to regulate.

Thus, to the cyberspace libertarian the essence of cyberspace is liberty itself. It is a place without boundaries, unencumbered by the regulations that typify the real world; a medium that is empowering and democratizing as it revolutionizes the opportunities for ordinary individuals to speak freely (sometimes without having to identify themselves), to be producers of culture, to share in communicative power that was once reserved only for the elite. In other words, the ultimate ‘technology of freedom’.

On the other hand, this notion of cyberspace being ‘unregulable’ as The Economist once put it is the ‘founding myth’ of the Internet. In fact, others like Lawrence Lessig have noted that it is the very openness and neutrality of the system that makes it more ‘regulable’ than the libertarian movement realizes or cares to admit : The nature of the Net is set apart by its architecture, and this architecture can be changed to make the Net more regulable. The Internet was built for research and communication, not commerce. Its protocols were open and unsecured; it was not designed to hide. Data transmitted could easily be intercepted and stolen but this did not seem to really matter in this libertarian utopia, the domain of academics and researchers. But the commercialization of the Internet changed all that.

From the start, commerce has pushed for changes in the architecture of the Net to enable more secure and safer commerce. But commerce does not act alone; it needs help constituting this ‘architecture of trust’. And this comes from the state which has increasingly begun to understand the value of an architecture of trust for its own regulatory objective.
Historically, Indian IT policy has vacillated over the years. The liberalization process began in 1991 but India logged on to the Internet only in 1994. Even then, the government resisted the global trend toward privatizing telecommunication and introducing competition. It was only in 1998 that the market was thrown open for private ISPs. Committed to elevate India to the level of an IT superpower, the government set up a high level IT task force to formulate an Action Plan. The recommendations of the task force also formed the basis of the IT Act 2000.

When I was first trying to cull out a proposal, certain events were already showing signs that the days of the IT Act of 2000 were numbered.The first is the arrest of a CEO of an extremely popular auctioning site who has been charged with abetting in the sale of pornographic material. This has raised important questions about the extent to which ISPs/system operators can be held responsible for the actions of their users. Narayan Murthy, among many others, advocated his support for the arrested CEO and called for a change in cyber laws. While this case managed to attract front-page attention, a more significant change was brewing elsewhere.
The National Association of Software & Service Companies (NASSCOM) finalised a draft on amendments to the IT Act to ensure cyber security in India. (“We would like India to be a safe deposit vault for the IT segment.”) This is hardly surprising considering the latest survey conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers for CII which revealed that the number of security breaches in the country has shown a rise of 83 per cent from last year, prompting Indian corporates to put secure information systems high on their priority.

Now consider this: In July 2003, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) was established. The government said one of the jobs of that body would be to ensure a “balanced flow of information”. Two months later, the team following an order by the central government blocked access to the “Kyunhun” discussion forum, which was reportedly linked to a banned separatist group in Meghalaya. An unintended consequence of the ban was that Indian Internet users lost access to all Yahoo! websites, thereby highlighting the danger of Internet censorship and the complex technical problems involved.
If issues of censorship and cyber crime were not complicated enough, we also have to deal with a whole gamut of related issues: privacy issues, intellectual property and copyright, encryption technologies, closed-source code versus open-source code, digital signatures, spamming, blogging (!!!)…

It is inevitable that as we become a more ‘digital nation’, as we try to come to terms with this revolutionary new technology, we will have to answer one absolutely fundamental question about the nature of cyberspace we want for ourselves : How do we preserve the Net’s core values and open architecture without encouraging anarchy yet at the same time not allow cyberspace to be smothered by superfluous and numbing regulations?

The proposed documentary, the first attempt of its kind to understand the issues related to freedom in cyberspace in the context of a developing country like India, asks this critical question and tries to seek answers to it. The documentary will also be a reminder that while we debate these issues, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a huge digital divide exists in our country and all notions of technological freedom and individual empowerment are superfluous while it does.

3 /4/06
Greetings, fellow Fellows (and everyone else who’s listening in!), For those who have been waiting for my posting with bated breath, apologies for the delay. I have been going through a crisis here. To be precise, a bout of second-posting blues. It’s that stage of the research process when you are on the trail of many different strands and you have none of them completely worked out. And if it’s a film on cyberspace and freedom – both very difficult to represent visually – you have got your hands full. Like a good, diligent researcher, I decided to beginby doing a bout of library and web research. While there is a wealth of material on various aspects of cyberspace in terms of the American and the European experience, I had realized, even while working on the proposal itself, there was not much material to be found specifically in the Indian context. (So, all you researchers, there is actually a gold mine here waiting to be dug up!) One of the aims of the project would be to collate the material that’s scattered all over really and make it accessible at a single place.

The blog (which is not up yet, but, I promise, will be up this month) should serve that purpose.
But the fact that there is a wealth of material on the American and European experience but ever so less about ours begs an interesting and fundamental question : Are the issues in India different? Is there something like an Indian cyberspace which is different from the American cyberspace? If so, then does not the whole anti-statist stand of the cyber libertarian fall flat on its face? Doesn’t cyberspace then become demarcated along the same boundaries that it is supposed to have erased?

Please do respond if this excites you even a wee bit. Meanwhile, the library research goes on. And shall go on for most of this month. I start traveling in April (Once I have quit my job!)
Also, I am still looking for further funding to make the actual documentary. Any ideas anyone about prospective funding agencies/individuals???
Cheers.

Deep.



3/30/06
Greetings, fellow Fellows (and everyone else who’s listening in) First things first. Sincere apologies to Vivek and the Mumbai fellows who met the other day for keeping you guys waiting and not turning up. As I mentioned in my second posting, the library research was going to be on the whole of this month. No major original theories yet, but things are slowly but surely beginning to move (at least, that’s what I would like to believe!) Some semblance of a structure

(finally!)
Also, needed some help in trying to piece together a history of the Internet in India during the period, 1988-1994, when it was only available in select educational institutions. Any info, contacts or comments on that are welcome. I begin traveling in April. The next posting will be definitely longer!
Cheers,

Deep.



5/1/06
Greetings fellow Fellows (and everyone else who’s listening in),
Yes, I’ve finally hit the road. Writing in from Bangalore.The day I reached the city, I came across a front-page article in TOI titled ‘Curbs on entry of under-14s into cyber-cafes on cards’. The Karnataka govt., the writer informed us, was seriously scrutinising a proposal to bar children below the age of 14 from entry into cyber cafes and ‘any other establishment which provides computer services to the general public for a cost’, unless, of course, they were accompanied by an adult. The move was aimed ‘to curb the harmful influence of Internet on children’. The writer also added that cyber cafe owners had, apparently, welcomed the move.
A few days later, the Kavya Vishwanathan case happens.

Sunil Sethi appears on NDTV 60 Minutes, and with him two senior English professors (I surfed in too late to get their names). On being asked whether they came across cases of plagiarism in the writings of their students, one of the ladies remarked that plagiarism was indeed prevelant. She added that the coming in of the Internet had further intensified the problem as young, aspiring writers would copy and paste from various sources and by the end of it not even remember what was original and what was not.

The very next day, Apache Indian (remember him?), in an interview on one of the FM stations, blames piracy on the Net for harming the careers of singers like him. And the next day, the news channels are full of this Indian chap who, in his postings on the Net, was exhorting Iraqis to kill George Bush and rape Anglo-saxon women. This case, as the channels repeatedly mentioned, is particularly interesting given the sanction of free speech by the First Amendment under the US Constitution. It would be an interesting case on where you draw the line on free speech. I will move on here, but please feel free to make the connections between the above four stories here. In fact, write in.

In Bangalore, the first person I had to meet (of course) was Lawrence Liang. Many on this list would know Lawrence, either personally or through his frequent postings.
Lawrence is a legal researcher with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore. In 2000, Lawrence wrote a fascinating article titled ‘Regulation of Cyber – A Space or a Medium?’
While stating that “every technological revolution hasbrought with it a new spate of legal issues and legal problems which have to be addressed either through the modification of existing laws or the introduction of a new legal paradigm”, he argues that ‘the real issue for us to discuss, however, is whether the Internet is merely another technological medium or is it truly a “space”.

The fascinating bit about this is the whole idea of how law conceptualises a subject (cyberspace in this context) and the following insight that it is this very concept of the subject that determines how law and thereby civil society (or most of it, at least) will view it. In his words, Lawrence argues that ‘law is a constituitive discourse ie. it not merely describes a particular phenomena but through such a description goes on to create the very phenomena itself.”

The norm in legal circles is to think of the Internet as ‘a lawless frontier where anarchy prevails’. And hence the legal solution to regulate the Internet. Lawrence believes that there is something fundamentally wrong about this. Instead, he believes that cyberspace should be conceptualised as an actual social space and hopes that ‘standards of behaviour will emerge within the context of virtual communities which can be enforced contractually as opposed to using criminal laws to enforce aceptable behaviour.”

Before going in to meet Lawrence, I went to an ATM to withdraw some money. As I stood there in the queue, I couldn’t help wondering that somehow my bank and Lawrence represented two extremes of my story. While Lawrence argued for an unregulated (or rather self-regulated) cyberspace, my bank was probably spending millions trying to come up with stronger security measures on its gateway. While I had a weak spot for Lawrence’s arguments, I also liked the convenience of Internet banking. So, here was the crux of my film. How do I reconcile the two? Is there a meeting point at all?
I asked Lawrence the same question. But for that, you have to watch the film!!!
So long….

Deep



5/23/06
Greetings, fellow Fellows…
Month five into the research. While I try to structure my research material, new developments make sure I am always on my toes. Well, read on…In a letter addressed to all employees in the IT sector earlier this year, Kiran Karnik (President, NASSCOM) wrote:

We have just completed a joint NASSCOM-McKinsey study and this indicates strong growth in the years ahead. In fact, we expect that exports would reach US$ 60 billion in 2010, from just over US$ 17.8 billion in 2004 – 05. However, reaching this ambitious goal is contingent on certain actions and steps. A vital one amongst these is related to ensuring the security of data; an allied issue is protecting ourselves and our systems from criminal elements. These issues, if not properly handled, could derail our growth and our hopes.

In recognition of these, NASSCOM – working closely with industry colleagues – has taken a number of pro-active steps. Many of you would be aware that most companies are already taking a few steps to make our industry a more secure environment for ourselves and our clients. I have personally communicated to many CEOs the need to continuously raise the standards for the safety of the employees and the clients. These issues are being taken extremely seriously, not only by NASSCOM, but also the government, the legal authorities and the police. Together, we will leave no stone unturned and we aim to make India the “Fort Knox” of security, positioning ourselves as the gold standard for security as we are today for quality.

One of the steps taken was the setting up of the National Skills Registry (NSR). Hit by allegations of data theft last year and led by subsequent fear of losing out on the outsourcing pie, the NSR was set up in January 2006 to keep an eye on employees in India’s IT and BPO industry.

Last week, the Indian IT industry declared that all employees will have to register on its biometric database so it can assure its Western clients that their customers’ personal data will be protected. The decree is one of the first instructions of the Self Regulatory Organisation (SRO), which would be set up to oversee the data security measures. The SRO would subscribe that all members would have all their employees registered in the registry. The SRO will be created out of Nasscom after a year. The employee database will be operated outside the industry, by National Securities Depository Limited (NSDL), which manages India’s stock exchange transactions.

In an article, Mark Ballard writes:
Nasscom vice president Sunil Mehta said, “The SRO will prescribe a whole set of best practices, which will include our adherence to global privacy laws in relation to our data processing and outsourcing.”Mehta said the rules governing the use of employee data had been drawn up in a joint effort by Nasscom, NSDL and the industry. He said it was likely the guidelines would not be published. Employees’ considerations had been taken into account by consulting lawyers, he said. “They don’t have a union, but we did focus group discussions to attain their views. Nasscom said employees get to control the use of their data. “All information is governed by the employee and nothing can be done with it without the employee’s consent.”
The National Skills Registry is intended to guarantee that employees are who they say they are. But employers have open access to the data and, as well as proving identity, the registry also includes career history, background checks and “verification comments”. Employers will also be able to link to the NSR from their HR databases.

Incidentally, another web article quotes a government official, who did not wish to be named, saying that companies would now be able to track the career backgrounds of employees and help law enforcement agencies tackle data theft.

While this happens, a new IT Act is on the anvil. In fact, the Bill might even be tabled in the Monsoon Session of parliament. Remember the arrest of Avnish Bajaj, the CEO of
Bazee.com, in December 2004 for allegedly abetting in the sale of pornographic material? The incident raised a lot of hue and cry and rightly so. Well, following all that, as the new IT Bill stands, the government has decided to totally remove the burden of proof from the head of the intermediary.

But the problem, as Pavan Duggal, Supreme Court advocate and arguably India’s most famous cyber lawyer, told me is that the new law is vague as to who an intermediary is and hence the term could be applied to an ISP as well as to a BPO. The results of totally removing the burden of proof from the latter, he believes, can be extremely dangerous and will undermine India’s national interests. The Bill, incidentally, also promises to introduce privacy laws in India. But I really wonder what that will entail.

Will be in Delhi end of May.
Till the next posting…
Cheers,

Deep



25.6.06
Greetings fellow Fellows (and …),
Am writing this in a real hurry. That might explain the disjointed nature of what comes next.
Six months into the project, it seems an ideal opportunity to evaluate the project. It also seems necessary as the project has become larger than I had earlier anticipated. When I had started out, I was seeing a 30 min docu. But in subsequent months, I think nothing less than a 60-minute film can do justice to the subject. But when I said ‘larger’, I was not just talking about the length of the final film. There are newer angles that have to be explored and others further explored. But before I talk about these, it’s important to point out the core debates. It took me the better part of six months to actually deconstruct the entire body of arguments into the basic debates. And the reason it took me so much time is the fact that these debates are like the network itself, so interlinked that it is difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.

There are, as I see it, four major debates:

free spech v. censorship debate

open network v. secure network debate

public domain v. intellectual property debate

privacy debate

Now, added to that are issues pertaining to:

the digital divide

internet governance

The debates mentioned-above have to be re-contextualized to the Indian experience and for that it is important not only to give a brief history of the Internet but also a history of the cyberspace experience in India .

To add to the previous point, all the above debates also have to be understood in reference to the IT and ITES industry in India. This is India’s largest industry, its biggest money-spinner. And the biggest concern that those in the government and industry have now is this: can this remarkable growth that has happened in the last few years be sustained? Or will countries like China, Russia, Phillipines, Malayasia manage to sink their teeth into this pie?

It is important to understand how the industry works, how software writers conceptualize ‘code, how network security systems work, etc. Another interesting point I would like to make here: though I have listed the free speech v. censorship debate at the top, I think this has taken a backseat.

Censorship issues were important in the earlier days of the Internet, but with increasing commercialization of the Internet, it is this conflict between the interests of commerce, often supported by the state, and others who believe in ‘free information’ or those who see in the Internet the ability to subvert the market that has taken centrestage. The whole concept of Internet governance is a new one and very murky. One hopes that things will become clearer after the Internet Governance summit in Greece in November later this year.

Will keep you updated on that. Till the next time…
Cheers,

Rudradeep


8.1.06
Greetings…
Apologies for the delay.
In the middle of 2003, the then recently-formed Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) ordered Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in India to block a discussion group on Yahoo! The group in question was called Kynhun and it was a discussion forum for the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), one of North-east India’s many banned separatist groups. Unfortunately, the ISPs ended up blocking all discussion groups on Yahoo!, thus managing to incur the wrath of the cyber community and bring the banned outfit some much-needed visibility. But why did the ISPs exceed their brief? Why did they end up blocking all groups on Yahoo!?

Earlier this year, (in May to be precise) I posed this question to Mr. Deepak Maheshawri, the Secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI), an umbrella organizatiion of ISPs in India. It was a technical problem, he explained. At that point in time, ISPs in India did not have the technology to do this kind of ‘targetted blocking’, thus ending up causing a ‘blanket ban’. However, he assured me, they were now equipped to do such a thing.
But, as it appears, he was wrong. Or was he?

In my last posting, I had tried to re-evaluate the project and had listed out the ‘debates’ the film was going to focus on, trying to make things more structured, yet simpler. Well, it’s better news this time around. I have finally worked out a way to structure the sprawling narrative. The film will be divided into five separate sections:

The Network

The State

The Corporation

The Public

The State, The Corporation, The Public and The Network

(which, incidentally, is the title)

The story of the Internet, as I see it, is a story of increasing ‘barriers’, all technological in nature but mostly prompted by traditional political, commercial and cultural factors. At every level, the individual, the corporate, the national, in that order, there are entry barriers. Hence, this structure, which, if you wish to be persuaded, can be pictured as a series of concentric circles, an onion if you like. The final section, which is outside this series of concentric circles) will examine the idea of Internet governance.

This project, which had initially started out as a 30-minute thingy, is now an ambitious feature-length documentary. Yes, this is going to be a ‘traditional’ documentary in many ways, replete with archival footage and interviews! But that is a small price to pay for narrative clarity, something which this project needs. I have maintained from the very beginning that this a film targetted at a general audience, people like myself and probably like quite a few of you reading this, people who are not geeks, nor hackers, probably not even bloggers; they might use e-mail sometimes but probably not even that. The challenge is to make the film informative, yet entertaining, and more so to make it relevant to people who would not normally think so.

Looking forward to meeting the other Fellows in August

in Delhi.
Cheers.

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