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Pervasive Technologies: Access to Knowledge in the Marketplace — CIS’s Upcoming A2K Research Initiative

Posted by Jadine Lannon at Sep 25, 2012 06:45 AM |
Pervasive technologies have flooded the Indian market and are changing the ways in which the average Indian accesses knowledge but very little is understood about these technologies, particularly when it comes to their legality. The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) plans to begin a research project that aims to understand how pervasive technologies interact with Intellectual Property laws and what can be done to protect these technologies from being labelled “illegal” and eradicated from the Asian market.

Between 2000 and 2012, mobile phone subscriptions in India increased from 3.578 million to 893.86 million — an increase of almost 250 per cent.[1] In fact, mobile device sales were expected to reach 231 million units in 2012, an 8.5 per cent increase from 2011[2] and an incredible leap from the 21 million units sold in India in 2004.[3] While mobile phone penetration has been rising steadily in India,[4] the cost of mobile phones has plummeted, meaning that the ability to purchase and use mobile phones in India is becoming more and more widespread, especially in the marginalized classes. Mobiles are not the only technology that has experienced this phenomenon; indeed, many different types of pervasive technologies (mass-market networked communication technologies) have become increasingly more accessible across the board in Indian society.

When I use the term pervasive, I am referring to those technologies that are the most accessible to and used by the typical Indian. These technologies are characterized by their ability to provide access to media without significant cost to the user through both their low cost and their features. Mobile phones, netbooks and media players, as well as hardware, software and associated content are all considered to be pervasive technologies. For research purposes, CIS will only consider those technologies that cost under USD 100 or about INR 5,400. Considering that in 2011 it was estimated that about 75 per cent of the mobile devices sold in India cost below USD 75,[5] this is not a restrictive figure.

Although these technologies have become near ubiquitous in India and similar developing markets, very little is actually understood about how they interact with Intellectual Property (IP) laws. The pervasive technology industry exists somewhere between formal and informal and legal and illegal (as Carolyn Nordstrom would put it, these technologies would be il slash legal, or il/legal),[6] and can shift in and out of the legal/formal and illegal/informal realm depending on the stage of production; this is why they are often referred to as “gray market” technologies (though in some cases, it may even be appropriate to call them extra-legal).  This lack of compliance with IP laws have made technologies both quite cheap to purchase and a popular platform for software, hardware and content innovation. The result is that these technologies often contain the newest and most interesting features and they provide the most “bang-for-your-buck” for content and value-added services. Thus, a consumer can buy a grey market technology that will have a wide array of features and services for a much lower price than would be paid to one of the larger manufacturers for an equal or even lesser product.

It is the low cost but highly sophisticated state of these pervasive technologies that is changing the way that people across the world access information and media, particularly those individuals and groups that routinely face barriers to mainstream structures of access. For those that were left on the wrong side of the infamous “digital divide”, pervasive technologies have been arguably the most effective means of providing real access to knowledge to the masses within India and across Asia, even more so than directed development initiatives. Indeed, pervasive technologies are not the future solution for access to knowledge; they are the current reality.

Although pervasive technologies are plausibly the most effective tools of access for knowledge in the marketplace in emerging economies like China, Indonesia and India, very little scholarly research has been done on pervasive technologies in the developing world, especially research that acknowledges the significant role that pervasive technologies have had in bridging the digital divide. This absence of appreciation for the significance of pervasive technologies in developing economies, coupled with a lack of understanding around their complex interaction with national and international IP regimes, may lead to a policy vacuum within which the existence of pervasive technologies could be jeopardized. Accordingly, CIS will begin a new access to knowledge research initiative that aims to understand the relationship between pervasive technologies and Intellectual Property. Pervasive Technologies: Access to Knowledge in the Marketplace will span over two-and-a-half calendar years (30 calendar months) and will recruit researchers from China, India, and other parts of Asia. Interaction will also be established with members of like-minded projects in Africa and Latin America. This research will begin as soon as it is approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The current project proposal is available for download as a PDF document (299 Kb).

The immediate aim of the research is to understand the legal environment, in which pervasive technologies exist, but simply generating comprehension is not enough; pervasive technologies must be allowed a more formal space in the Indian market. As part of the research project, CIS plans to carry out both an advocacy phase and dissemination phase in order to use the research outputs to create a more widespread understanding of the importance of pervasive technologies as access to knowledge tools. We hope that the research will encourage the formation of IP reforms and norms that recognize the role that pervasive technologies play in providing access to knowledge and enable their continued participation in the Indian market and society.

As the formal research project has yet to commence, I will be working on a small section of the Pervasive Technologies: Access to Knowledge in the Marketplace research on pervasive mobile phone technologies. CIS currently possesses 12 mobile phones that fall into the definition of pervasive technologies, though we will hopefully add to our collection as the research continues. The aim of this research is to document as much information about the life-cycles, hardware, software and content of each phone as possible in order to generate a better understanding of how these phones exist and interact with IP regimes and norms. The blog series on this research should begin in the next couple of weeks.

[1]. Data available on the International Telecommunications Union Data Explorer at
[2].Gartner Inc. Gartner Says Indian Mobile Handset Sales to Reach 231 Million Units in 2012, 22, 2011).
[3].Gartner Inc., ‘Forecast: Mobile Terminals, Worldwide, 2000-2009 report’ (July, 2005), but cited information can be retrieved from
[4].International Telecommunications Union, 'The World in 2009: ICT Facts and Figures' available at
[5].Gartner Inc. Gartner Says Indian Mobile Handset Sales to Reach 231 Million Units in 2012, (November 22, 2011).
[6].Nordstrom, C. Global Outlaws: Crime, Money, and Power in the Contemporary World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 256.