A Victory for the Internet: SOPA Act Dropped After Mass Protest


The blockage last week of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act of 2012, is a tentative victory not only for net neutrality and changing definitions of intellectual property, but also an impressive display of new online organizing.

SOPA is the first of what will likely be several attempts to censor the Internet, under the logic of media’s intellectual property law. Nominally, the act would have shut down offshore torrenting sites, a move which the FBI already took in part on Jan. 19, when massive file share sites Megaupload and Megavideo were shut down. Actually, the law would have the capacity to shut down or censor some of the most trafficked sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, as well as numerous smaller sites with much less clout and bargaining influence.

SOPA is not the last we’ve seen of the push to censor the Internet. As our modes of information access have shifted from newspapers and libraries to the vast universe of the web, law, especially intellectual property law, has struggled to keep up. It’s no secret that record sales, newspaper sales, movie attendance and other hallmarks of our media-saturated era have plunged in recent years, and the industries have scrambled to save their bottom lines. SOPA and its ilk will not go without a fight.

The most interesting outcome, then, of the SOPA debacle is the massive backlash from the general public. Goaded in part by blackouts of popular sites such as Wikipedia and Reddit, millions of angry consumers signed petitions large and small to “save the Internet!” The sites in blackout, and even those that weren’t, linked viewers to a place where they could look up their representative and send an email in protest, as well as sign a petition.

People’s activist fervor, at least as exhibited through Facebook and Twitter, was overwhelming. Seasoned organizers might argue that anything done in front of a computer screen is not activism but “slacktivism”; yet behold, the architects of the bill have backed down and vowed to go back to the drawing board.

How SOPA is critical, is determined by the means we had to use to protest it, indicating ever more clearly the Internet’s omnipotence and almost crippling power in our lives. A censorship of the Internet would be a censorship of the people’s power, through the means we in the developed world now use to express it.

The anti-SOPA petitions are a heartening harbinger of the massive quantities of fervor and activism, even via the Internet, waiting to be tapped. This was a large-scale version of the rapid-fire Change.org petitions that stunned corporations, such as Molly Katchpole’s Change.org petition against Bank of America‘s proposed $5 fee for debit card usage. Katchpole, a 22-year-old nanny (and full disclosure, a former coworker of mine), collected 300,000 signatures through an online petition and the bank relented. Several months later, SOPA protests ignited the same kind of public fervor, just on a larger scale. Both protests indicate the ubiquity and power of online organizing, and both capture public distress at a time when banks and governments are overstepping their limits more than ever.

Attempts to legislate the Internet will not go away. The Internet is a relatively young place and as such is inevitably going to be reined in as the boundaries of authority shift with the meaning of intellectual property. Fortunately, the medium shapes the message, and the millions of signatures, calls and emails to our representatives indicate how the general online public can organize not just for net neutrality, but for anything.

Source- Sophian

Censorship at Symbiosis: See no Kashmir, hear no Kashmir, speak no Kashmir


By Shivam Vij

For the past four years, a handful of Kashmiri Pandits and right-wing activists have shut down numerous screenings of Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi: How We Celebrate Freedom (2007). The most recent cancellation by Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune, was a result of pressure from the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The activists made sure the seminar was cancelled — at least for the moment — by not just leaning on the founder-director of Symbiosis but also by going to the police. The college principal Hrishikesh Soman says he got a letter from the police saying the screening should be avoided as the film was “controversial.”

The screening was to be a part of a UGC-funded seminar on Kashmir in the college, to which several others had also been invited. Thanks to the ABVP, the entire seminar has been cancelled.

There are many reasons offered for this dismal outcome – and all of them are spurious.

One such reason is the absence of a censor certificate. However, Section 10 of the Cinematograph Act allows for exemptions to be given for screening without a censor certificate, and a 1956-57 report ‘on the progress of audio-visual education’ (available on the HRD Ministry website) mentions that several states including Bombay (now called Maharashtra, where Pune is located) have used the clause to exempt educational institutions.

In short, Symbiosis would break no law by screening Jashn-e-Azadi.

This isn’t about whether or not the film has a censor certificate, whether or not it needs one or should have one. This is about Kashmir and the attempt by the rightwing to silence all discussion on Kashmir. The ABVP claims both the film and the seminar encourages “separatism.” In other words, they decide what is anti-national and what is not, and their opinions have now become – by default – the law of the land. Anything that is “controversial” to the Hindu or Muslim right inevitably creates a “law and order” problem and hence has to be shut down.

Read more here

What Twitter’s New Censorship Policy Means for Human Rights

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Twitter dropped quite the shocker last week when it declared its new policy to remove tweets in certain countries to abide by specific national laws. While a tweet will remain visible to the rest of the world, specific messages will disappear in the target country (e.g., following requests by governments).

The ensuing backlash saw a lot of people screaming “censorship” (ironically, on Twitter). While the first wave of criticism has quickly calmed down, for a human rights watchdog, the announcement is quite alarming:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression… Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.

A new policy for old-school repression

Twitter claims that this isn’t a dramatic shift in policy, but rather clarification of existing policy, with a “fix.” Previous removals of content were global, for example, when they removed a tweet, no one could see it anywhere. Now, country-by-country, Twitter can block content specially tailored to that country. In a bizarre logic, the increase in control of information in response to government demands means, according to Twitter — less ‘censorship.’

One may incredulously respond that country-specific removal would further disadvantage people who saw Twitter as a means of circumventing illegal restrictions on their speech and expression. Further disadvantaging people who’ve turned to the service as a means of empowering themselves through voice, assembly, and access to information.

Though there has been an outpouring of anger in response, some are quite pleased. Today, Thailand became the first government to publicly endorse Twitter’s decision. China and Iran haven’t made any statements (China’s state-run newspaper did praise the move), but I suspect they’re pleased, as are several other governments that have sought to shut down Twitter at the first sign of dissent.

As an aside I should note that — as with any attempt to control information (see my post on SOPA/PIPA — there are already easy ways — five at last count — to bypass Twitter’s blocks.

Outrage and tough choices

I’ve appreciated the outrage, given the importance (not to be confused with value) of Twitter. I have no doubt that information posted on Twitter — and any other large public networking platform — has resulted in all manner of things, from the terrible, to the great.

We know that information spread via Twitter has saved countless lives, from natural disasters such as in Japan or in humanitarian crises, such as in Cote d’Ivoire. Twitter has contributed to regime change in repressive places. It has even helped free a prisoner in Kashmir and has become a valuable network for citizen journalists and concerned citizens, such as in Mexico. It is a medium by which human rights advocates carry forward their work, such as our Eyes on Syria project (look for #EyesonSyria — but maybe not if you are in Syria), or Amnesty’s own Twitter account.

But for all of these goods, information on Twitter has surely created harm. In crisis, it can become a dangerous medium for rumors or misinformation (or “terrorism” charges). Al-Shabab‘s recent banning of the International Red Cross (a violation of international law of the highest order) was communicated via Twitter. Indeed, Kenya‘s military has been fighting Al-Shabab on the ground, as well as in the twitterverse.

Importantly, information has no inherent value… it is the effect of the content that lends moral weight.

Twitter has never had to make difficult decisions about that content, however. Twitter has never had to be responsible for controlling content in the manner its new policy will require of it. And Twitter will be called on by governments around the world to censor. The cat is out of the bag, and the decisions that will need to be made by Twitter lawyers and staff should give them sleepless nights. At some point — somewhere — harm will be done by those choices. Voices will be silenced. Lives will be lost. Twitter will inevitably make mistakes, and the world will be different as a result. It is a power it would have been wise to deny having.

The stark fact is that — like traditional media, housing, agriculture, or any of the other sectors upon which humanity’s ability to fully enjoy their human rights is dependent — profit motivates great innovations in the digital world. Profit also motivates consolidation and control.

The source of the immense outrage over the policy says more about our collective confusion over digital networking tools than Twitter’s policy. Twitter is seen as a public good. But it is not. Twitter is a (private) company, one that probably made over $100m in profit in 2011 — though its profit potential may be an order of magnitude higher. It is a company like any other, with motives. As with other companies, we — as consumers — have leverage.

But far from suggesting a boycott, let’s start with the basics.

#International Law

I appreciate Twitter’s appeal to the rule of law. Let me make my own.

We have an international body of law that protects the rights of people, and sets forth the obligations of governments, businesses, and the everyday person. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations spend an exceptional proportion of their resources monitoring compliance with the law, and calling out those who violate human rights law. Not just governments, but businesses as well, from Shell and Dow Chemical, to cell phone manufacturers, mortgage banks, and private security firms.

Allow me to offer a word of advice to Twitter: Laws often clash. In the U.S., there were laws on the books in the southern states that were ruled unconstitutional long before they were finally scrapped. And there are surely domestic laws in countries that will be cited by governments or security elements as a basis for denying speech via Twitter that will clash with international human rights law. They will be illegal domestic ‘laws’ in contravention of established international human rights laws. They will be unjust laws.

What will Twitter do?

At some point, Twitter will be pressured by governments to change its terms of service so the work around for access to blocked tweets becomes a use violation…Twitter does in fact know where you are tweeting from, and can deny your ability to change your location to circumvent information blackouts.

At some point, user information and location will be demanded by a repressive regime with a cheap, and by international standards, meaningless veneer of a court order. They will demand it, and will appeal to domestic ‘law’.

What is abundantly clear is that human rights monitors and advocates — for the immense power Twitter and other digital networking tools have given them — have an entirely new domain to monitor. As with other sectors, business decisions in the digital world have human rights implications. For the immense value of Twitter, the policy announcement only brings into focus what we’ve known for some time — human rights monitors and advocates have a lot more work to do since the digital revolution. Our collective vigilance is needed more than ever, however we chose to communicate.

We will be watching you, Twitter. Take it as a measure of your importance.

Scott Edwards is Director of International Advocacy for Africa and Director of the Science for Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA.

In the hurry to meet targets, UIDAI is missing its goals


In the hurry to meet targets, UIDAI is missing its goals

Lost Identity- Prabha Jagannathan

Feb1, 2012- The Week

The division among economists and social activists over whether the Unique Identity (UID) programme, or Aadhaar, will streamline the government’s social sector and welfare programme roadmap or disrupt it seems to be widening further. The high profile project, say critics, has become fixated on achieving targets, while losing its way on its goals.
In fact, a bitter row that broke out recently threatened Aadhaar’s very existence. The ministries of home and finance took on the UID Authority of India and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Planning Commission’s deputy chairman, echoing the long-simmering apprehensions within the government. The row, however, was papered over soon with Home Minister P. Chidambaram saying his ministry had “no rift” with UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani.
Also, the home ministry agreed to enable its own biometrics smart cards based on the National Population Register (NPR) with Aadhaar numbers, meekly toning down its concerns over the possibility of fraudulent UID numbers creeping into the system. The UIDAI has delegated hundreds of small companies and overnight outfits to collect fingerprint and iris data, leaving gaping authentication holes in the process.
Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, whose ministry is expected to be a key beneficiary of Aadhaar in large programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, preferred to keep his own counsel. Some officials at the ministry later suggested that the home ministry’s biometrics card and the Aadhaar number could coexist because they had “different objectives”.
MGNREGS and the National Old Age Pension Scheme entail cash delivery as a fundamental part of their functioning, and Aadhaar, say economists and social workers, can be used efficiently in them. However, Aadhaar’s unstated long-term goal of replacing welfare programmes, such as the public distribution system (PDS), with cash worries many. Once the Right to Food Act is implemented, cash disbursal will become an intrinsic option for the government. “Aadhaar functionaries on the ground are telling people that they will get easier access to social schemes if they get the number. They are not telling them that the services will be replaced by cash. The government should state this openly and transparently if it is moving to cash in welfare programmes,” says development economist Reetika Khera.
Apart from the policy issues, Aadhaar is facing many execution challenges as well. According to Nilekani, three per cent of the population has fingerprint problems, which make their registration difficult. Surveys, however, peg the figure at 5-15 per cent. Then another 20 million people have cataract, making iris scan a tough job. Solutions for these problems are yet be figured out. Also, thousands of hastily issued Aadhaar cards are lying unclaimed with post offices and at social work organisations.
The fresh row seems to have rekindled the concerns over the relevance of the UID exercise. Some critics even say it is creating a secondary ecosystem of ‘corruption, collusion and deception’, comprising lobbyists, hardware suppliers and those who benefit from fudging UID data.
Glitches detected by pilot schemes have been brushed under the carpet and no real cost-benefit analysis of the project has been done, thanks mainly to the Prime Minister’s keen interest in it. But what is worrying economists and social activists more are its tall claims of benefits and non-relevance on the ground. “I am fully convinced that those in charge of this exercise have no understanding of how these social sector programmes or even corruption actually work on the ground. The UIDAI claims that bank transfers will eliminate corruption, but welfare programme cash transfers have since 2008 been made through post offices and banks,” says Khera, who has worked with development economist Jean Dreze, the architect of NREGS.

Read more here 

French Scientists: Childhood Leukemia Spikes Near Nuclear Reactors


Belleville Nuclear Power Plant, France, August 27, 2011. (Photo: coralinetheblue)

1 February 2012
by: John LaForge, Truthout | News Analysis

French researchers have confirmed that childhood leukemia rates are shockingly elevated among children living near nuclear power reactors.

The “International Journal of Cancer” has published in January a scientific study establishing a clear correlation between the frequency of acute childhood leukemia and proximity to nuclear power stations.

The paper is titled, “Childhood leukemia around French nuclear power plants – the Geocap study, 2002-2007.”

This devastating report promises to do for France what a set of 2008 reports did for Germany – which recently legislated a total phase-out of all its power reactors by 2022 (sooner if the Greens get their way).
The French epidemiology – conducted by a team from the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM), the Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (IRSN) and the National Register of hematological diseases of children in Villejuif, outside Paris – demonstrates during the period from 2002-2007 in France the doubling of childhood leukemia incidence: the increase is up to 2.2 among children under age five.

The researchers note that they found no mechanistic proof of cause and effect, but could find no other environmental factor that could produce the excess cancers.

Without getting overly technical, the case-control study included the 2,753 cases of acute leukemia diagnosed in mainland France over 2002-2007, and 30,000 contemporaneous population “controls.” The children’s last addresses were geo-coded and located around France’s 19 nuclear power stations, which operate 54 separate reactors. The study used distance to the reactors and a dose-based geographic zoning (DBGZ), based on the estimated dose to bone marrow related to the reactors’ gaseous discharges.

All operating reactors routinely spew radioactive gases like xenon, krypton and the radioactive form of hydrogen known as tritium. These gases are allowed to be released under licenses issued by federal government agencies. Allowable limits on these radioactive poisons were suggested to governments and regulatory agencies by the giant utilities that own the reactors and by reactor operators themselves. This is because their reactors can’t even function without regularly releasing radioactive liquids and gases, releases required to control pressure, temperature and vibrations inside the gigantic systems. (See: “Routine Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants in the United States: What Are the Dangers?” from BeyondNuclear.org, 2009)

In Germany, results of the 2008 KiKK studies – a German acronym for Childhood Cancer in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants – were published in both the International Journal of Cancer (Vol. 122) and the European Journal of Cancer (Vol. 44). These 25-year-long studies found higher incidences of cancers and a stronger association with reactor installations than all previous reports. The main findings were a 60 percent increase in solid cancers and a 117 percent increase in leukemia among young children living near all 16 large German nuclear facilities between 1980 and 2003. These shocking studies – along with persistent radioactive contamination of Germany from the Chernobyl catastrophe – are largely responsible for the depth and breadth of anti-nuclear public opinion all across Germany.

Similar leukemia spikes have been found around US reactors (European Journal of Cancer Care, Vol. 16, 2007). Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina analyzed 17 research papers covering 136 reactor sites in the UK, Canada, France, the US, Germany, Japan and Spain. The incidence of leukemia in children under age nine
living close to the sites showed an increase of 14 to 21 percent, while death rates from the disease were raised by 5 to 24 percent, depending on their proximity to the nuclear facilities.

When the US public owns up to the dangers of nuclear power, we, too, can get around to its replacement and phase out.

Ghatkopar’s Ramabai Nagar: Where the Republic still lives

Feb 2, 2012,  By Javed Iqbal, Mumbai, DNA

Early on the morning of July 11, 1997, at Ramabai Nagar in Ghatkopar, a woman claimed to see the statue of iconic leader BR Ambedkar desecrated. Within a few hours, angry Dalits had gathered on the highway in protest.

By 7.30am, a police van would stop 450mt away from the protesters, disembark and immediately start firing. They would fire over 50 rounds within 20 minutes into small lanes and by-ways and into people’s homes and into the homes of people who were not even protesting.

They killed 10 people.

Young Mangesh Shivsharan was shot in his head, right in front of Namdeo Surwade who was shot on his shoulder.

“The boy’s brains were all over my father,” said Manoj about his father Namdeo Surwade, a handcart puller who could never work a day after the injury and died a few years later, becoming the eleventh victim.

But there was another casualty of the killings at Ramabai Nagar.
Vilas Ghogre, Dalit poet and singer, committed suicide horrified by what he saw at Ramabai and the realisation that “this country is not worth fighting for anymore” as witnessed by his friend, singer Sambhaji Bhagat in Anand Patwardhan’s new film Jai Bhim Comrade, screened at Ramabai Nagar on the eve of the nation’s 63rd year as a Republic.

For three-and-a-half hours, over 1,500 people saw the film on a makeshift screen, many standing through its entire duration. The film details not just the life of Vilas Ghogre and the police firing but its aftermath — the movement for justice that led to the police officer who ordered the firing to spend less than a week in hospital (not jail), before being let off on bail by the High Court.
It tells other stories — the martyrdom of a young Dalit Panther Bhagwat Jadhav, killed by the Shiv Sena at a protest rally in 1974; the incisive and fiery oratory of Panther leader Bhai Sangare that possibly led to his martyrdom in 1999; the Khairlanji massacre and continuing atrocities in the countryside. It examines the assault on the Constitution and the slow appropriation of radical Dalit leaders into mainstream Congress or hardcore right-wing politics while also critically examining the role of the left in dealing with caste.

Read more here

Nandini Sundar: The path to a conflict-free state

Polcieperosnal hit youth photo- vikas dhoot

Nandini Sundar, Forbes India

Contrary to the dominant narrative that areas where Naxalites are strong are where the state has been absent, for the last 100-150 years, there has been a gradual expansion of the state in tribal areas regardless of whether the people want it or not. However, the state has been expanding in the wrong areas. You have an extension of the forest department, the bureaucracy, the patwari and the forest guard. But at the same time there is no state presence in the form of school teachers, healthcare workers and other services.

The problem here is that the state only wants to take a military approach towards ending Naxalism. This will not work as it has been proven in the case of Kashmir and the North East. It may have ‘worked’ in Punjab, but that was because the people were already alienated from the militants. The criterion of success is also debatable because of the grave violations of human rights. In terms of a constitutional approach to conflict resolution, I wouldn’t say that was an approach that worked.

This attitude (of the government) is reflected in the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) programme of winning the hearts and minds of the people, as part of which the paramilitary gifts people lungis and saris. Ironically, the CRPF personnel beat up people if they don’t accept the gifts and people laugh as they recount this.

In Chhattisgarh, in the areas where Maoists are strong, there is no voting in the villages, and many of the sarpanches have joined the Salwa Judum. So, when development work is routed through the sarpanches, it has no relationship to anything on the ground. The sarpanches don’t even live in the villages, and invent paper schemes in collusion with the block officer. It’s a fantasy of development where the paperwork looks good, but no one’s heart or mind is being won. Much of this is also being shown for roadside villages which were never Judum-affected or Maoist-influenced in the first place, so that the figures look good. But the real areas that are affected remain unaddressed.

The only way to proceed towards establishing peace in Chhattisgarh is to start on the plank of justice. Three villages had been torched last year and in 2007. The interesting part here is that in 2007, the average losses (claimed by the tribals) per household was around Rs 1 lakh, but due to the recent incidents (attacks on the tribals by the paramilitary), in many households, the figure is as low as Rs 20,000 per household. It is evident that the Adivasis are not only under relentless attack, but are also becoming paupers.

In this context, it is not clear what role the integrated action plan announced by Jairam Ramesh will play. Where people have been killed and raped and houses burnt and they get no justice, will their hearts and minds be won through roads and panchayat bhawans? For their part, the villagers will accept state intervention if it is seen as a part of a justice package and not as part of counter-insurgency. We (activists fighting on behalf of the tribals in Chhattisgarh) had submitted a rehabilitation plan that precisely ensured this – through an enumeration of what had happened in each village and a transparent compensation and criminal registration process with an appropriate monitoring committee. But the government – both Centre and state – have kept stalling.

If the Centre is serious about bettering the situation in Chhattisgarh, first it needs to withdraw troops to the barracks and hold peace talks with the Naxalites. But that seems unlikely as they have killed Kishenji (Maoist leader). The Maoists, for their part, must stop initiating attacks and renew expressions of interest in peace talks. As unlikely as the prospect seems, there is no other way, but talks. As for other steps, the onus lies on the government alone. The second thing that the Chhattisgarh government needs to do is to implement the Supreme Court order disbanding Special Police Officers (SPOs) in its spirit. The state government has today recruited the SPOs into the Chhattisgarh Armed Auxiliary Force and they continue to threaten people.

The SPOs are allowed a free run by the police. Today, the SPOs who have been recruited into the auxiliary force earn four times the salary they used to draw earlier. While they were paid Rs 1,500 earlier as SPOs, these people today earn around Rs 7,000. They are the ones to benefit the most out of our petition. This would be fine in terms of giving them security, but for this to be constitutional, the guilty ones among them have to be taken to task. Otherwise, what you have is the regularisation of criminals.

The government needs to ensure that justice is delivered to the people of Chhattisgarh. It also needs to implement our rehabilitation plan and file criminal cases. Today, you can be a mass murderer and get away with it whether in Gujarat 2002 or 2005 onwards in Chhattisgarh. Unless there is an end to impunity, and a movement for this, just like the movement against corruption, we will never see a conflict-free country.

What needs to be done:

* End the military approach towards Naxalism.

* To establish peace, one needs to start on the plank of justice and start peace talks.

* Disband Special Police Officers who threaten locals with impunity.

(As told to KP Narayana Kumar)

Nandini Sundar is head of department, Sociology, Delhi School of Economics.

India Edging Maoists From Mineral-Laden Land, Chidambaram Says

Palaniappan Chidambaram (1)

Image via Wikipedia

Indian police for years have abused civilians in the fight against the Maoists, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. While India’s Supreme Court in October ordered an independent probe into allegations that police in Chhattisgarh tortured and sexually assaulted a schoolteacher whom they accused of links to the rebels, “authorities have not initiated any inquiry or criminal action against the police officers implicated,” Human Rights Watch said in a Jan. 31 statement.

February 01, 2012, 1:52 PM EST

By James Rupert and Bibhudatta Pradhan

Feb. 2 (Bloomberg) — India is winning command over mineral-rich areas where Maoist guerrilla attacks deter billions of dollars in potential investment, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said, one year after he declared the conflict deadlocked.

“Albeit slowly, we are gaining control of the situation,” reversing Maoist advances that began after 2004, Chidambaram said in a 40-minute interview on counter-terrorism, Pakistan and prospects for expanding foreign investment in India’s economy. “The earlier estimate that in three to four years we will be able to gain ascendancy was an optimistic estimate,” he said. “That I am willing to concede.”

Chidambaram told a conference in 2009 that reinforced police battalions in heavily forested Maoist enclaves would eliminate a rebel-run zone whose area is as big as Portugal. On Feb. 1 last year, he described “a kind of stalemate” in the insurgency, which blocks mining of bauxite, iron and other minerals. Execution Noble Ltd., a London-based financial services company, said in 2010 that the region had the potential to draw $80 billion of investment.

The minister declined to specify what period now may be needed to defeat the rebels beyond saying “it will take a few more years.” He spoke in his high-ceilinged office in the red sandstone secretariat built a century ago as the seat of Britain’s colonial government.

Chidambaram, 66, a lawyer and Harvard Business School graduate from India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, is one of the most prominent members of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet.

Record Growth

As finance minister from 2004 until 2008, Chidambaram oversaw record economic growth that averaged 8.5 percent a year. Singh moved him to the Home Ministry amid public anger over the 2008 attack on Mumbai by 10 Pakistani guerrillas that killed 166 people.

Read more here

UID, NPR and all that Jazz

200 px

Image via Wikipedia

Jaimon Joseph

Some three months ago, my wife, her sister and their parents drove seven odd kilometers from where we live, to register for a Universal Identity or UID number. They’ve all got one now. Strangely, my wife got it about a month after the rest of the family did, even though they’d all enrolled together.

I was working that day, so about a month later, I hopped across to an apartment complex just ten minutes from our place, where I’d heard there was a UID camp in progress. I stood in line for maybe half an hour, then got myself photographed, fingerprinted and my iris scanned.

Curiously, the young lady who took all those records, couldn’t even type properly. She’d pound the keyboard with one finger – I remember wondering if she was determined to destroy it. As if in revenge, the computer refused to accept my full address. She banged it in at least thrice and the computer would mysteriously change it to something else.

Another chap came across and if I remember right, he deliberately didn’t fill in the PIN CODE. That’s when the software accepted my address. But even then, in a short hand sort of way – I’m not sure if it’s intelligible enough for Mr Nilenkani’s team to actually post me a letter with my UID number.

I checked with my parents who’d registered themselves just two days before at the same camp. They told me the attendants made it a point to record their email addresses and even filled in details of their existing bank accounts. Just two days later, in my case, they didn’t ask for either. But they automatically ticked a box which said I’d like to open a new bank account. Without even asking me – though the UIDAI guidelines, quoted in various articles on the web, apparently say they must.

A month after that, I discovered there was a UID camp happening right within my apartment. For such a supposedly hi-tech, project, couldn’t the registration process have been just a wee bit more sorted out? How hard would it have been to tell the residents of an area when and where these camps would be held?

Messers Chidambaram, Nilenkani and Ahluwalia have just decided all of us will have to do all of this all over again – this time for the National Population Register (NPR). This is a compulsory scheme, part of the Indian government census apparently.

And so this Sunday, my mom and brother walked to a NPR camp at a government school very close to home, to enroll for NPR. It was painless. But essentially they redid all the scans they’d done earlier.

The rest of the family will probably follow suit, once we know when and where the next NPR camp is being held. But my father’s been working in the northeast for sometime now. If he can’t attend the next camp in Delhi – will he be enrolled at a camp in the NE? And what complications might that entail?

But let’s put aside a single family’s minor discomfort and confusion. What exactly are all those brainy folks in the government aiming at? First they scan everyone twice, using two separate teams, with separate sums of money – tax payers money.

Then they spend some more cash comparing the scans from both teams. If there’s any mismatch, the National Population Register’s biometric scans are used and the Universal Identity biometric scan discarded. But that doesn’t mean the UID team will give back any of the money they spent, if they get any of the scans wrong. Not fair? Well – life’s not fair.

But what do I get after all this spending? I get a silicon chip embedded in a smart card, with a UID number embossed on it. What’s the card good for? It proves I’m Indian. But don’t my Passport, voter I card, PAN card, driver’s license, ration card all do the same thing? Why spend all that money on something they’ve already proved?

What’s the UID number good for? In itself – nothing. Turns out it wasn’t even compulsory to sign up for it. But Nilenkani and team are slowly dreaming up schemes where everything in India – from hospital bills to school certificates, from bank accounts to your monthly ration, will all be generated only if you have a UIDAI number. So might as well get it.

Only problem is, nobody’s told me what they’ll do with all the computer data they get, when I log in with my UID number. Let me explain. We’re all sick of marketing calls and pesky SMSs right? Why do we get them?

Because marketing guys went out and collected our phone numbers. Where did they get them from? Who knows – from our emails, Twitter messages, from door to door surveys, from cell phone shops, from service providers like Airtel and Vodaphone?

It doesn’t matter – they probably paid money to get our cell numbers. Why? Because they could individually send ads to each of us. And once they started, the government, despite its best intentions hasn’t been able to shut them up.

Now imagine a word where I “log” in with my UID number for anything I need. For medicines at a chemist, for a doctors appointment, to open a bank account. In an age of smartphones, I’ll have smart apps that use my UID number to order Pizza from the neighbourhood store or book train tickets. Every time I use my number, there’s a computer trace of where I was, what I was doing. Seems harmless.

But the devil’s in the detail. There’s no law yet, that prevents smart marketing guys from reading those computer traces. And for tailoring ads for me based on what they think I’m most interested in.

Here’s an obviously farcial example. Let’s call it science fiction right now. Something I dreamed up. But something that I’m still a wee bit worried about.

Let’s say I have a bout of erectile dysfunction a few years from now. Nothing unusual – male menopause does strange things to people. But it’s not something I’d want everyone to know.

So I visit a sex specialist who has a clinic on the other end of town. Where no one knows me. Before giving me an appointment he asks for my UID number and feeds it into his computer – because he isn’t allowed to entertain any patients who don’t have UID.

Read more here

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February 2012
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