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Why the new Geospatial Information Bill, 2016 is a death knell for start-ups?

The draft Geospatial Information Regulation (GIR) Bill 2016 recently introduced by the government is complete bad news for Start-up ecosystem and will lead to a license-quota-permit raj 

The government of India, ministry of home affairs recently released a draft bill on geospatial information regulation and invited comments from the public. The reason given by the government is that Pathankot attack in January was due to the precise location being known by the terrorists and that the bill addresses the question of national security. The bill recommends a fine up to Rs. 100 crore and a jail term up to seven years if the map of India is depicted wrongly.

Governments have every right to frame laws to safeguard and enhance national security. The bill has been on the agenda of the Indian government since 2012. The main concern of the government seemed to be Internet giants like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft etc. According to the draft bill, it will be mandatory to take permission from a government authority before acquiring, publishing, disseminating, or distributing any geospatial information about India. It also specifically states that the government will set up a Security Vetting Authority (SVA) in a time bound manner. Where the bill gets it wrong is creating a negative atmosphere and unnecessary roadblocks for start ups.

Amitabh Bagchi, a professor at IIT Delhi, says that companies like Google and Microsoft are at the lowest end of an application stack that may consist of several layers.  Multi billion dollar companies like these get the information available through the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). In December 2014, the Survey of India, the central government’s nodal agency for maps reported that map of India is wrongly depicted by Google in its websites like google.co.in, ditu.google.co.ch (China), google.pk (Pakistan) and google.org (general).

The ones who are likely suffer the most are Start-ups that heavily depend on geolocation services. Companies like Zomato, Swiggy, zop now, gropeher etc have their successes pinned on to the location. In addition, Bangalore based start ups like MapUnity and Latlong that create apps for businesses are genuinely afraid that it will kill them. Big companies like Ola and Uber do not get affected that much. They are big enough to tide over crises. It is the small companies that have every reason to be apprehensive. The timeline for government approval could be up to three months, a luxury which cannot just be afforded by the start ups. Therefore they have come up with a website titled Savethemap.in that informs the user about the bill in the frequently asked questions (FAQ) section. A good public policy is one in which all stakeholders are consulted rigorously and their concerns addressed.

Guru Aiyar is Research Scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar

Featured Image: Geomap by Caulier Gilles licensed from Creativecommons.org

 

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Protests in Bangalore and Kashmir — Manifestation of Radically Networked Societies?

What most of the commentators have missed out during the recent protests in Kashmir and Bangalore is that the traditionally organised power structures are being challenged by radically networked societies and governments need to restructure better to respond

Two recent protests in the country demonstrated how radically networked societies (RNS) challenge the conventional, bureaucratic and hierarchical power structures. Last week, after a girl was allegedly molested by a soldier in Handwara, Kashmir saw a deluge of protests by the locals. The army later released a video in which the girl gave a statement exonerating the army. But the incident was enough to snowball into a major law and order problem in which police had to resort to firing on protesting mobs resulting in five dead and scores injured. It culminated in the dismantling of army bunkers after more than two decades.  In the second incident, violence erupted across Bangalore on April 18 and 19 by garment factory workers that left more than a hundred injured, two of them seriously.  A police station was attacked and vehicles were set on fire. Reportedly, this was a reaction to amendment to Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) by the central government as part of its budget announcement for 2016. The new norms barred employees from withdrawing their entire provident fund corpus before retirement. On April 19, the government announced a complete and unconditional rollback.

The striking feature of both the incidents is that they were leaderless. In Kashmir, mobs of protesters were assembled based on “news” circulated in WhatsApp groups.   The dismantling of bunkers has been seen as a victory for locals. But the government’s response was typical of bureaucratic knee-jerk reaction. In an order dated April 18, the Kashmir government has instructed all WhatsApp groups to register within ten days.  There were even government employees who were part of the groups. WhatsApp has emerged as a potent tool for gathering of protesters. The statement by Divisional Commissioner, Asgar Samoon reported in newspapers is produced as below:

There are many unauthorised news groups on WhatsApp that disseminate news. It’s not restricted to just chatting, they have thousands of followers who post news without verification and many times lead to law and order problems. Government employees are for implementation of policies, if they have grievances or suggestion they can be put forward through proper channel not in public forms. In many cases government employees were seen instigating violence.”

Even in Bangalore, the protests were first planned and circulated in WhatsApp groups among the garment industry workers.  Most of the protesters were women. About three and a half years ago, Bangalore had a similar incident concerning the migrant working population from northeastern part of India. In August 2012, more than 30,000 people left the city over rumours of impending attack on them.

According to my colleague Nitin Pai, corruption, economic distress, political oppression, and elite control of political power, among others have always been there. He goes on to add that the proliferation of public protests might be the first signs of clash between radically networked societies and hierarchically ordered states. This is true whether the polity is democratic or authoritarian.

In 2011 Arab Spring, protests spread like wildfire in Tahrir Square in Egypt and Tunisia that resulted in ousting of authoritarian political leaders. The onset of social media like facebook, twitter, whatsapp, Snapchat etc. have radically transformed the speed with which information is transmitted and processed. In many ways, this is the epitome of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘medium is the message’  theory.

Bangalore and Kashmir present a contrast and similarity. Contrast, because Bangalore city police is one of the most tech savvy forces in the country with an active twitter handle and social media presence. Kashmir police has not demonstrated such a capability. In addition, Kashmir has a heavy presence of other security forces like Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and army which have their own typically rigid hierarchical organisations. Similarity, because both got checkmated by very similar radical networks.

Responding to the RNS also entails a trade-off between liberty and national security. To what extent can personal freedoms and liberty can be contained is a matter to be seriously debated. Left purely to governments, they will only enact policies to strengthen the hand of the state, however draconian it may be. This will be an incremental tail chase in perpetuity. The latest order in Kashmir is evidence of this.

One reason the United States emerged on top of the world order is because it had the best political system for post-Enlightenment industrial age societies. It can be argued that the nation that best restructures itself for the information age will have a shot at being the next great superpower. Across the world, governments are grappling with this phenomenon. We certainly have a long way to go.

Guru Aiyar is a Research Scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar.

Featured Image: Network, licensed by creativecommons.org

 

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Kudos to TRAI—India ain’t a banana republic

The TRAI letter to Facebook on the issue of Free Basics has demonstrated that our institutions have enough discretion to stall veiled attempts in shaping public policy  

Asserting itself, TRAI in a strongly worded letter on 19th January, criticised Facebook calling its Free Basics campaign a “crude” attempt. It accused the social networking site of turning the consultation over differential pricing of data services into an “orchestrated opinion poll” to push its Free Basics. The company had run an aggressive campaign with full page newspaper ads. Reportedly, it spent more than Rs 300 crores. Free Basics allows users to access certain sites without data charges. However, there is nothing free about it. In addition, Facebook reworded the TRAI’s questions in its consultation paper into template responses which reduced users’ choice. The regulator had sought the views of stakeholders on differential pricing on data services being offered by operators. The responses sent by Facebook did not adequately cover the issues that TRAI was bringing out. The regulator pointed out that such interpretations as done by Facebook would have dangerous ramifications for policy making in India.

The number of responses received by TRAI is also bone of contention. TRAI said that it received only 1.89 million responses. Facebook on its part, stated in an email on 13th January that no mails could be delivered to the TRAI id after 17th December, 2015 and contested that it had sent more than 11 million responses. TRAI promptly replied as to why Facebook had to wait for 25 days before bringing this to notice. There was a certain degree of coercion and a lack of transparency in the manner that Facebook took the consent from its subscribers. The regulator had asked Facebook to tell its users to specifically answer queries raised in the paper. The responses sent by Facebook were not relevant to the questions posed by the regulator and instead it was a veiled attempt for its ‘Save Free Basics’ campaign. However, the regulator has stated that it will consider all the relevant responses sent by Facebook.

This stand off between the regulator and Facebook has come at a time when the social media giant is trying to vigorously establish its footprint in India. With this approach, TRAI has effectively demonstrated that it will not stand for being bullied by a multi national corporation trying to have its way. Whether Facebook backs off, or escalates this further remains to be seen.  On 21st January, TRAI is holding an open house on differential pricing and net neutrality involving all stakeholders. It will be interesting to watch the development as it will have a major impact on the internet services.

 

Guru Aiyar is a research scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar

Featured image: Uniqeulycat(Cathy) Smith licensed from Creativecommons.org

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