The great leveller: Mobile phones in India flag potential for m-gov elsewhere too

The NY Times has a great story on mobiles in India. From 1997 to 2000 I experienced as a student how the introduction of cybercafes in Delhi – at the time far more expensive then their Sri Lankan counterparts per hour – changed the way I communicated with family back home and Indians communicated with family out of Delhi and abroad.

There are aspects the NY Times article does not touch upon, more disturbing. India has repeatedly asked Blackberry to allow access to its secure network. There is also the need to critically look at the impact of mobiles on strengthening the participatory nature of democracy, especially at local government level. It is not clear for example in Sri Lanka that heady mobile growth has contributed meaningfully to better governance at the grassroots or national level.Evgeny Morozov’s Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy? is key reading in this regard, and a useful flip side to the optimism of the NYT article.

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Unmasking bloggers in India raises some interesting questions

First it was shutting down blog sites after the Mumbai bombings in 2006. This year it was attempting to snoop into communications conducted over BlackBerry’s. Now Google has been instructed to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger in a defamation lawsuit filed by an Indian construction company against them.

The story on the Wall Street Journal reports that,

A small Indian construction-equipment company is demanding that Google Inc. disclose the name of a person who used its blogging service, in a case that could change the way the Internet giant does business in India.

The WSJ article needs a subscription to read (try BugMeNot) but another on Wired on the same issue ends on an interesting note,

This could potentially become an issue for bloggers bashing folks overseas, and set an example for cases regarding anonymity.  On the positive side, maybe it will encourage citizen journalists to back up their posts with more researched and trustworthy information.

A landmark ruling in California in 2006 gave bloggers protection from revealing their sources. In a case filed against Apple, the court ruled that

….online journalists and bloggers have the same right to protect their sources as all other journalists. The case was brought to court by Apple Computer demanding from a number of news website operators to reveal the source of confidential information posted about some of its products.

Apple did not appeal.

Snooping into mobile communications in India

Research in Motion (RIM), the folks behind the Blackberry, are reportedly close to finalising a deal with India’s Home Ministry to allow it to monitor communications and access customer data.  As Ars Technica notes,

The issue first became public in early March, when the ministry threatened to ban BlackBerry service entirely, unless it was given unconditional access to any and all of the information passing across RIM’s network at any given time, for any given person… The ministry claimed it needs access to customer data in order to protect the country from terrorists operating in Kashmir, who may be using BlackBerrys to communicate with each other.

In 2006 India noted that it was using mobile phones to track insurgents and terrorists in Kashmir. 

“Earlier, we thought it would help terrorists in their communications and help their subversive activities,” army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel V.K. Batra said. “But it is proving counterproductive to them.”

Two years on the the government now seems to think that the interception of Blackberry communications will help in its struggle against terrorism. There are conflicting reports on the status of negotiations with RIM, with some newspapers suggesting that RIM has agreed to conditionally turn over all customer records and others suggesting that RIM is unwilling to budge on the issue of customer privacy

As the Ars Technica article notes however,

It may be a month or two before Research In Motion announces the details of its agreement with the Union Home Ministry, but the information coming out of India is at least plausible. RIM has yet to state, point-blank, that it will not allow the Indian government to access its network traffic in some form or another, and until that happens, all bets are off.