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Archive for the ‘Thinking Aloud’ Category

I. The People’s Movement for Indigenous Search Engines

(A take on the corruption situation in India)

There was once a conclave of Well Intentioned Activists gathered to discuss a most deserving cause: how to make search engines Pro-People. Popular foreign search engines such as Google and Yahoo were artifacts of capitalism and foreign imperialism with their only goal being to make profits for themselves. “Search engines are elitist” said the chief activist, reflecting the mood of the conclave. She continued, “They are not pro-poor. The poor do not use search engines on expensive computers”. Agreeing with this sentiment, another People’s leader said, “The middle classes are obsessed with shopping malls and search engines. In a nation with so much poverty, are foreign search engines really necessary? Do they address issues faced by the common man?”

All the Well Intentioned Activists agreed that this was an intolerable state of affairs. The country needed grassroots level search engines and the best way to make this happen was to regulate. Left to their own devices, search engines would continue to be elitist and serve corporate interests. “The government must do something” they said.

And the government agreed with alacrity.

A Search Engine for the People (SEP) scheme was announced. Anybody could set up an Indian search engine, provided they obtained approval from the newly constituted Ministry of Internet & Search Engines. Indigenous search engines were required to show top 3 results that would reflect grassroots level issues. For example, for the elitist search term “smart phone”, the top 3 results would be pro-people articles such as “polio vaccinations”, “have you thought about illiteracy today?” and “indigenous people’s movements in the North East”.      

Even better, foreign search engines were banned from doing business in India. The government commissioned a massive firewall to block foreign Search Engines. Any ISP found circumventing the firewall had to pay a hefty fine and risk having their approval revoked.

In this way, the people’s search engine movement got results on behalf of the People.

II. An Entrepreneur’s Tale

Three years later, a young wannabe entrepreneur had a brilliant idea for a semantic search engine suited to Indian languages. She had a PhD in computational linguistics and natural language processing. Her research advisors had been very encouraging of her PhD thesis and urged her to launch a search engine based on its concept.

Her first step was to apply for permission to start a new search engine and obtain the requisite approvals from the Ministry. She filled out 26 forms in 2 languages (One Indian language apart from English). In a box provided on one of the forms, she explained how her search engine would be useful to the people and would help find search results relevant for Indian languages.

She was bewildered when her application got rejected for not being people-oriented. Helpful friends asked her to talk to a search engine broker, someone who knew how to work the system in Delhi and had contacts in the Ministry.

“Do you have political connections?” asked the broker. She shook her head. “I have contacts right at the top of the ministry”, he boasted. “The minister’s son-in-law’s school friend is my neighbor’s nephew. He can get your work done. Bas, you will need to take care of my neighbor and his nephew, and also the son-in-law and the minister. Approval mil jaayega.” The wannabe entrepreneur was a bit dazed by all this and said “But why do I need to do all this to start a new search engine? My concept is excellent and my background in computational linguistics……”. The broker guffawed, “What does all this PhD VhD have to do with setting up a search engine in this country? Arre, this is the problem with you educated people. You think you are very smart and can work outside the system. Madam, this is not America. You have to follow the rules here. Without chai-pani kuch nahin hota yahaan.”

Finally, like other bourgeois yuppies, the wannabe entrepreneur decided to go to the US and continue her career in in Silicon Valley. And that’s the last anyone heard of her.

III. The End of Corruption

The elitist middle classes and upper middle classes are looking for a backdoor way to access foreign search engines. This mindset is no doubt a consequence of 200 years of foreign rule and definitely has nothing to do with the quality of the foreign search engines, as is alleged by vested interests. Since it is illegal to use foreign search engines, ISPs charge a hefty premium for providing this service. Conveniently, they also do not show this additional fee in their receipts and thereby avoid paying tax.

But the ISPs do not get to keep all the money. They have to bribe the inspectors and officials of the ministry to look the other way. In a totally unrelated and coincidental development, officials of the Ministry are said to command hefty dowries when they get married.

Over the last couple of years some of the older ISPs have exited the industry since they were squeamish about bribing the ministry and breaking the law. New competitors have entered the market. It is rumored that the mafia is behind some of the new ISPs, since there is good money to be made by those with no compunction about breaking the law. There have been reports of turf wars between mafia-backed ISPs leading to law and order problems in several areas.

There are rumors that search engines have to ensure that they do not return any results that are critical of the government and the ministry. Otherwise the ministry revokes approval. On the other hand, they can easily get into the good graces of the ministry by showing results critical of the minister’s political rivals. There have also been rumors that the Ministry is planning to bring internet portals and news sites under its purview. News sites will have to provide news favoring the government and party in power or risk losing their approvals.

The Well Intentioned Activists are not perturbed. If the government tries to manipulate the media, they will launch public agitations. But it is important not to lose site of the real issue, which is to make the internet a people oriented and grassroots level medium.

The Ministry is usually allotted to a minister from a crucial coalition partner who can deliver seats and is in a position to make a difference to electoral calculations.  But there are rumors that this party goes all out to win its seats and bribes voters to come to the polls and vote for it. But at least this way, corruption is democratized. Why should only ministers, government officials and ISPs be the ones to make money? Let ordinary people also have their chance.

In a new study by Transparency International, the Ministry of Internet & Search Engines is listed right after to the Income Tax department as the most corrupt. But the Ministry does show a lot of potential and it is expected to achieve the Number 1 spot next year.

The rising corruption and violence are a cause of much concern to citizens. There have been a series of scams involving the minister and several bureaucrats. The middle classes are so disillusioned that concerned citizens recently took out a candlelight vigil even though a crucial India-Australia cricket match was being played at that time.

There are many theories about the reasons for the pervasive corruption. The older folks believe that the younger generation lacks integrity. They think nostalgically of the days of the freedom movement when there were very principled leaders who went to jail for worthy causes. On the other hand the younger generation says “We Indians are like this only. Corruption is in our DNA”.

There is a small but vocal section of commentators that claims to understand the real cause of corruption. These people say that corruption is an outcome of giving bureaucrats and ministers too much discretionary power. This not only corrupts those in positions of power, but also attracts criminals and undesirables to politics. Worse, honest people are shut out of politics. But this is dangerous propaganda. We must not forget that these people have a hidden agenda to serve elite interests and would like nothing better than to allow foreign corporations a free hand. They are mentioned here merely to show how vested elites can try to obfuscate the real issues.

But once again, it is the Well Intentioned Activists who show the way in a bleak situation.  Concerned by the mounting corruption, they are conducting agitations to force the government to take action and clean up the system. Principled and brave activists are taking fasts unto death. There are speeches and rallies. People are so enthused that Facebook is inundated with status messages about the agitations.

The government is forced to compromise. Because of all the agitations, fasts-unto-death and pressure from the Activists, the government has set up a People’s Institution for the Eradication of Corruption. The Institution will have the mandate to prosecute any corrupt official or citizen. Since it will comprise of all the Well Intentioned Activists and their appointees, there is of course no chance of it acting wrongly. The middle classes are delighted, for now that this People’s Institution has been established, there will be no corruption and they can go back to watching cricket with a clear conscience.

There are vague mutters heard of “Who will guard the guardians?” but that is entirely irrelevant.

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