‘Consumer ambitions must not override citizen rights’

Print edition : March 18, 2016

Nishant Shah. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Nishant Shah, co-founder of the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru.

NISHANT SHAH, who teaches at Leuphana University of Luneburg in Germany, is co-founder and Director-Research at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Bengaluru. He is an International Tandem Partner at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University, and a Knowledge Partner with the Hivos Knowledge Programme, The Netherlands. In these varied roles, Shah has played an important role in developing and furthering understanding of the ways in which the emergence and growth of digital technologies have shaped society, especially in their cultural and political dimensions. Among the wide-ranging issues he has studied is a series on the “Histories of the Internet(s) in India”, which examines the relationship between technologies and questions of gender, sexuality, urban spaces, governance and digital gaming in India.

Recently in India, Shah spoke to Frontline. Excerpts from the interview:

What is your reaction to the TRAI order? Activists say some ambiguities remain, among them the fact that the restraints do not apply to closed networks.

There are three contexts that are invisible, or implicit, in the resolutions we have now. The first pertains to the responsibility of the state as a provider of telecommunications infrastructure. Since the Rajiv Gandhi era [1984], there has been an understanding that the state is failing the country as a telecommunications provider. So, we started doing PPPs [public-private partnerships] and started inviting private participants to build the infrastructure, providing spectrum and access points. However, I think the problem of the failing state—a state that is not able to reach the last mile—has leapfrogged on to the Internet as well. The state has also failed to send the message across in a mode that is accessible and intelligible to the beneficiary. This is still central to this understanding.

While the public perception of the Net neutrality problem is that all these evil private people are coming to take over our resources remains, it misses out on the historicity—that these are not evil, private people but who the state invited. Remember, this was based on the state’s own admission that it was incapable of doing it on its own.

So, are you saying the state is complicit in having created the problem that we face today because it abdicated its responsibility?

No, I do not think it is a question of wilful abdication versus complicity. The state seems to be saying that we made a collective decision to transfer from a socialist welfare state to a neoliberal development state in the 1990s. So, none of this has been done behind our backs. This is the development story that we have created for ourselves. And, a crucial part of the neoliberal development state has been the private sector. It included foreign investment, SEZs [special economic zones], etc. So, I think the forced division of the private versus the public is thus problematic.

When the TRAI, through this order says, “Oh, this evil private sector is doing this”, we have to realise that it is the state that has enabled it to happen. The state has been the intermediary that has helped this evolve. Where the state has failed is that it forgot its responsibilities in holding the private sector accountable to be transparent in their policies. For me, the TRAI ruling is a good corrective. It has reminded the state that it has responsibilities in the state, market, citizen triangulation—not merely of arbitration but in putting up a system of checks and balances, which had not been in place.

This is the first step in ensuring that the ambitions of the consumer do not override the rights of the citizen. The state now has to find the vocabulary through which the two can be balanced.

On the face of it, the TRAI’s Consultation Paper on OTT, for instance, appears to be throwing “thinking aloud” questions, but a closer reading reveals that it has been triggered by the concerns of the telecom operators. What about those questions?

That is why the crisis of Net neutrality reflects the crisis of the role of the nation state in contemporary times. It is not about capital or market shares. It is about what the nation state would stand for, and those that are constitutionally enshrined. This is where the question of abdication comes in. While it is alright to say the private players have not been transparent, it is also true that the state has not been transparent.

How do you say that?

For instance, we do not know who the experts who triggered the OTT paper were. We need transparency about the identities of every person who was involved. Tell us what the conflicts of interest are. We refuse to believe that the authors had no vested interests at all. Of course, even we [CIS] have vested interests, but we state them upfront. That is why I disagree that Facebook says it puts up ads in “human interest”. That is a lie, it is not the vanguard of human interest; it is the vanguard of technological infrastructure. I say to Facebook: show us what your infrastructure needs are and allow us to decide whether we approve of it or not. That level of transparency is still missing here.

In retrospect, what do you think about the whole Free Basics affair? I mean not only Facebook, but also some of the Indian telecom operators.

We forget that Free Basics also has on board Google, Samsung, Sony and some others. My moment of joy was when there was a public demand for transparency about infrastructure, which has not happened with roads that collapse, with metro projects that are stalled. It has happened with the Internet for the first time.

The fact that the state is being forced to take cognisance of the public’s demand for transparency is fascinating. What makes me uncomfortable is the argument that we do not need Facebook, Google or the other private players to grant universal access. I think universal access is crucially important for India. It is true that the protests were mobilised by a privileged elite who were already connected and could take accessibility for granted. We do not have enough anecdotal or empirical evidence of how people on the margins felt about this issue. What we really need is community informatics. We also need to understand that we would never be able to achieve universal access merely through public infrastructure.

We need Facebooks and Googles, but we also need robust checks and balances so that these companies can further their interests, but not at the cost of the citizen.

What does this mean in infrastructure terms?

For example, while we are still trying to build mobile phones for people who do not understand English, because we do not even have alternative language input devices, compared to Mandarin, for example, it is companies like Samsung that are working on developing indigenous computing devices. While we are trying to expand bandwidth and Wi-Fi connectivity by expanding the networks, Facebook and Google are trying bizarre but interesting experiments like using drones and hot air balloons to expand coverage.

Why was Facebook so aggressive? It was pitching itself as a saviour of overcoming the digital divide.

You think if it hadn’t been so aggressive, it would have won? [laughs]. But when Sam Pitroda was calling for the privatisation of exchanges, the state was behind it. Facebook’s ad campaign was so jarring because it seemed to replace the state. Instead of hinting at a PPP which had the blessings of the state, it positioned itself as a caring state aiming to solve the problems of citizens.

But I think it was not prepared for the kind of strong response it got. People started asking: if Free Basics is a PPP, where is the public in it? There was discomfort with a proto state-like institution, which, when called upon to act, goes back to a terms of service instead of a constitution.

When you try to replace a constitution with enshrined rights by a terms of service, you obviously face huge problems. The counter was: my state, despite all its flaws, is informed by a document that is transparent, accessible and negotiable, unlike “terms of service”, which is a binding, legal document.

I really do not know whether Facebook mismanaged it; maybe it wanted to push at the limits to see what kind of hold it had in an India that is being shaped by a technocratic government.

I think it was a well-reasoned gamble in the context of the techno utopianism within the current government at the Centre, which may be willing to allow a technology vendor to position itself as a primary caregiver to people.

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