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Getting the net out of its web

by Sanchia de Souza last modified Apr 02, 2011 04:11 PM
Article by Malvika Tegta in Daily News and Analysis (DNA), 8 March 2009

Artists, academicians, tech heads and lawyers have come together to give the country a voice in technology, study, polity and discourse, says Malvika Tegta

The Internet has changed lives in ways we haven't stopped to grasp — the real feeding into the virtual and the other way round. Also, how the Internet interacts with individuals varies across cultures and societies. Narratives on the medium originating in the West cannot size up the complexities of the developing world. In the absence of a voice from the "global south" in affecting the direction of the Internet, technologies continue to be designed for a certain kind of end user, with underlying assumptions. "That apart, as the Internet grows, it doesn't necessarily always grow for the better, with things like cyber terrorism, cyber bullying, pornography, identity theft, gambling, internet addiction, being the by-products of the information revolution," says Nishant Shah, director-research and one of the brains behind the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), initiated in August 2008, set up to take note of what we passively allow to direct our lives.

These are the issues that led Gibraltar-based Anurag Dikshit, co-founder of PartyGaming, parent company of online poker site, to think that "the time had come for India to have a voice in technology study, polity and discourse, as we quickly find ourselves becoming an Information Society". He, along with Alternative Law Forum's legal theorist Lawrence Liang, Shah and Sunil Abraham, brought CIS into being, pooling in the finest minds from the field of arts, academia, law and technology. CIS, since, has set out to produce local and contextual histories of the Internet to make voices "emerging out of Asia more visible in international dialogues around technology".

Their approach: research, awareness and advocacy. Their goal: to make sense of how the Internet is changing the world around us, with India at the heart.

CIS looks at, among other things, the way copyrights, closed standards and an absence of public policy in certain areas have affected access, innovation and kept the Internet from being less democratic and vibrant. "Copyright law is kind of a monolithic thing, like a 'one size fits all' kind of solution for encouraging creativity. It doesn't really work especially when you look at an equitable system of access," says programme manager Pranesh Prakash. He adds: "Copyright proves to be a huge barrier to promotion of accessibility, and in the Indian context needs some kind of relaxation." Programme manager at CIS, Nirmita puts this in perspective, in the particular case of internet access for the visually impaired and those with cognitive disabilities. "A blind person cannot read the written word, so you record an audio cassette or you have an e-version of it and a screen reader reads it for you. That inverts the conversion of a format, which is not permitted legally under the copyright law in India. Every time you want to convert it, you need to take permission of the copyright holder. So what that is essentially doing is depriving you of your right to read," she says. "Our country should have a law that is universal. We have signed United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that says that everything on the Internet should be in accessible formats, but it's not binding and we don't have a law on it."

In the area of science and academics, copyrights pose another challenge, that of impeding innovation by keeping from the taxpayer, results of at least the research that is funded by tax a notion CIS has been pushing for. "Scientific literature is propounded on the principles like everyone is allowed to review it and that knowledge spreads to a number of people," says Prakash. Both the scientist and the reader want that. But what we see today is that a few publishers control most of all scientific literary output, so most of it is not accessible because a month's subscription sometimes amounts to the entire library budget of an institution. That is especially a big problem for developing countries.

By the end of this year, CIS hopes that individual institutions take up open access policy. "It may not always have to be a top down approach," he says.

In the realm of governance, CIS identifies use of closed standards software as not only unwise strategy, but also socially and ethically a bad decision, and is looking at policy change in the area. Explains Sunil Abraham, director-policy, in his paper: "If I were to store data, information or knowledge in .doc, .xls or .ppt format, my ability to read my own files expires the moment the licence for my copy of Microsoft Office expires." He adds that governments have a responsibility to use open standards, especially for interactions with the public and where the data handled has a direct impact on democratic values. "In developing countries, governments have greater responsibility because most often they account for over 50% of the revenues of proprietary software vendors," he writes.

They are also exploring bridging digital divides without ignoring the "complex interplay, in the case of India for instance, of caste, language, affordability, education, literacy, and in some cases, even religion" and how the Internet is changing the landscape of higher education in India.
As Shah puts it: "Internet technologies are now becoming tools that we think with. We cannot write without the cursor blinking on an empty screen, we cannot talk in public without the aid of a digital presentation..."

It's about time, then, that we thought about the one thing that's becoming one of the bigger movers in our lives and build a discourse around it. 


To read the article in DNA's e-paper, click here.

Filed under:
ASPI-CIS Partnership


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