Fighting battles online

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 16, 2014 04:19 AM
Internet policy maverick Sunil Abraham feels that accessibility is key to democratising the Internet space.

The article by Nikhil Varma was published in the Hindu on September 2, 2014.


Forty-year-old Sunil Abraham essays many roles, of a social entrepreneur, free software advocate and as policy director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society that focuses on accessibility, access to knowledge, internet governance, telecom and digital humanities.

When he finished his engineering degree and was job hunting in Bangalore, the internet was an entity he had heard about, but never worked on.

“Family constraints meant that I had to look for jobs that paid me more than the salaries offered by industries for a 9 to 6 job. I decided to knock doors in the non profit sector. I met T. Pradeep, who ran Samuha, an NGO in Northern Karnataka that focused on integrated rural development.

Sunil says, “He offered me a job provided I learnt to work on the Internet. My job was to set up the organisation’s website. By 1998, I became the head of the IT department. Many spinoffs from Samuha were also becoming very successful. Pradeep gave us Rs.14 lakh and asked us to spin off and create a new organisation called Mahiti, with a mandate to serve non profits and provide them with affordable IT services. I just came into the picture to fulfil someone else’s dream. We provided email services to non-profit organisations at affordable rates. We ran a bulletin board service and also offered a free webpage for select NGOs.”

In 99, Sunil was offered an Ashoka fellowship. “It is a US non-profit that that supports social entrepreneurs. The idea that won me the fellowship was exploring the democratic potential of the internet. It is very similar to the work that I do at the CIS. The internet remains a tool that can be used for empowering and disempowering purposes that could have hegemonic implications for society. I also worked with the UNDP, after giving a speech about free and open software at one of their meetings. I was hired as a consultant.”

Till June 07’, Sunil worked with the UNDP, managing the open-source network spanning 42 countries. “I cut my policy teeth in the UN and learnt to work with governments and had a better idea of free software and open content. I made a lot of contacts in the course of my work.”

It was at the end of the UN stint that philanthropist Anurag Dikshit decided to set up the Centre for Internet and society in India and Sunil decided to take up the assignment. “Anurag has been a great help from the start. His funds have been very vital for the organization.”

CIS deals with a host of issues, ranging from making the internet and mobile phones disabled friendly to creating more Wikipedia pages in Indic languages and enhancing internet penetration in rural India. The organization is also

With government surveillance taking on newer dimensions in the internet Sunil says, “Surveillance is like adding salt in cooking. It is essential in small quantities, but counter productive even if it is slightly in excess. While surveillance may be a good idea to keep public servants occupying high office under scrutiny, employing mass surveillance on everybody may not work well.”

He adds, “A rational approach is needed. We believe that privacy is inversely proportional to the power a person yields, while transparency is directly proportional to the power a person yields.”

Sunil is deeply apprehensive about some of the steps governments take to stem the flow of information. “A couple of years ago, the government had banned text messages beyond a certain limit to prevent rumours from circulating. This resulted in people moving to Whatsapp, which is more difficult to monitor. The government agencies ended up being the actual losers. The more unrestricted surveillance, better chances that it could be compromised.”

Another vital issue that plagues our times are the limits to free speech and expression. “Different countries have different sets of laws and traditions that govern all aspects of life. We have not managed to arrive on a consensus on food habits, mankind is a long way from developing a uniform policy about internet usage. In India, there are some limits on free speech.”

He says, “If something is illegal offline, it is bound to illegal online. I do not think we need specific laws to police the internet. If you try to ban something, it may end up getting more consumed. It happened in the case of Wendy Doniger’s book being withdrawn by Penguin. The sales of the book skyrocketed when it was published by another publisher.”

Sunil adds, “It is an important that good laws are made and these laws have been enforced properly. Enforceability must also be taken into account during framing laws.”


A scanned version of the article published in the newspaper can be found below:

CIS

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