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Pirates, Priests and Property
An interview with Sunil Abraham

Sunil Abraham, founder World-Information City partner institution Mahiti, in an interview on the politics of IP, traditional barriers to knowledge, and pirate subcultures.

At Mahiti, you develop ICT applications for the voluntary sector. What motivated you to start Mahiti, and what would you like to achieve?

My father was a scholar who studied caste - a socio-economic stratification of Indian society with religious sanction. In particular, he studied the knowledge hierarchy and power structures that accompanied and reinforced the caste system, including ancient versions of the patent system in which the untouchables were severely punished even for accidentally listening to scriptures. In many ways, I see my work both professionally and personally as a continuation of my father's work, which would be increasing universal access to, as well as control and ownership of technologies and knowledge by people of all races, castes, classes, and creeds.

What do the knowledge hierarchies established by the caste system consist in?

There is an ancient Indian text, the Code of Manu, Manu meaning the archetype of man. It lays down various rules and norms for Hindu life. It says that if an untouchable person, or a person of lower caste were ever to listen to the words of the scriptures, molten lead would be poured into their ears by way of punishment. People who were interested in maintaining the social stratification understood very clearly that access to knowledge was a threat to them.

For lower caste people there were never any possibilities to access knowledge?

For them, there were no possibilities to obtain an education, study the scriptures, or become a priest of a particular temple. In so many ways, if you look at the IT revolution it is very similar to the old temples in India. If you do a caste analysis of IT professionals, you will find that most of them come from the upper castes and upper class.

How were these rules enforced?

They were enforced by prescribing very specific punishments for various things. If you were to pass an upper caste man on the road you had to get off the road, stand to the side, put your head down ? there are very strict descriptions of a protocol that must be followed. And it also says who has rights to various types of property, whether it is intellectual property or physical property.

So the current IP regimes can build on these traditional practices?

In some senses the caste system is an earlier version of an intellectual property regime. We are always re-visiting older ways in which the elites control the masses through systems of law or technology.

Would it be true to say that the caste system actually favors the pubic acceptance of intellectual property regimes?

It makes it easy for people to swallow this idea. People in India have always thought that some people are privileged, while some of us would never be able to access knowledge. It is very easy to implement this system of intellectual property in a country like India because we have always accepted these inequities and inequalities.

But there seems to be a thriving gray market were those kinds of rules are not accepted at all. How do you account for that?

In cities a lot of the old social system breaks down. For a person who migrates from a village to a city, caste identity is not so important. Places like slums and underdeveloped areas in cities are clouds of anonymity where people are not sure which caste you belong to, who you work for, how you make your money. Within these clouds of anonymity, the alternate economies can flourish.

It would be an obvious interest of the IP business to clear away urban structures where such markets can develop.

Solomon Benjamin in his research shows how the government is trying to establish a clear title between physical property and individuals. And when you look at the IP regime it says that certain people have a clear title over certain knowledge or ideas. There have been many attempts have been to remove these spaces of anonymity where people can apply some kind of alternate way of meeting their knowledge deficits.

But surely such intrusions must require a great amount of violence?

There is definitely a lot of violence. The Alternative Law Forum has footage of raids of these markets. There is violence on both sides. Sometimes the police mercilessly beat up the pirates. In other cases, when the police were outnumbered, the pirates have stoned and injured policemen. It is a place of almost daily conflict.

How would you assess the development of this conflict over the next few years?

I think there will be some similarity with the way the red-light districts have developed: they have slipped into other areas or were distributed, with people operating from their homes, for example. Sarai has shown that even the copying of CDs is no longer done in one big factory, with big equipment that can be easily raided or confiscated, but rather it is broken down into many producers who could be operating from their homes. If the pressure on these clouds of anonymity is heavy, then a lot of these operations will move one level further into homes and houses. I don?t ever see this stopping.

So there will always be uncontrolled zones where this activity will go on, and additional pressure will just increase mobility.

It is like with sex workers. You no longer go to a particular red-light district, but you call and the sex worker comes to your hotel or home. Similarly, you will find fewer and fewer places where you can actually go and buy pirated DVDs, but there will be phone numbers and you call and somebody comes to your home.

In Europe people are being made familiar with the idea that illegal copying is not just illegal, but it is evil, that it is a sin and wrong. Is there a comparable moral drive in the pro-IP campaigns in your part of the world?

There are two kinds of campaigns. One is run by software companies and people that produce movies and the like, and I am not sure they are able to convince the ordinary citizen in India, and I doubt there will be very effective. On the other side, there are some singers, musicians, and film stars who have a huge fan following and they are now beginning to talk to the public and to their fan clubs about these issues, and some of them have actually gone as far as saying ?if you are a true fan, then you should beat up the pirates?. There have been incidents of fan clubs beating up pirates and destroying their equipment. I feel that is the most dangerous way in which intellectual property enforcement can enter the public imagination - through film stars who have a vested interest.

At the Networks of Imagination conference in Vienna you were presenting some of your work in South-East Asia, and you made several points with regard to free software, free networks and free hardware.

I think the main thing here is that I do not talk about free software, hardware and networks using a language of freedom, although classically we understand free software in terms of freedom. The philosophy of free software emphasizes the notion of freedom: freedom to use, to study, to modify, to share. Apart from philosophical considerations, there are also some technical reasons why people believe free software is better: it is faster, more stable, more scalable ? but for the free software movement to make greater inroads into civil society I think apart from these technical, practical reasons which the corporate sector finds so attractive, and also apart form the philosophical, freedom-based reasons, we must talk about free software from the perspective of rights.

Which rights would this involve?

The rights to free media, the rights of control over my data, the right to protect my language, the right to be private. The best example where you can directly link free software and the right to free media is the story of this blogger called Jeff Ooi from Malaysia. There is very little freedom of media in Malaysia, and it is very difficult to publish newspaper articles that criticize the government, or publish the level of air pollution. Somebody like Jeff Ooi uses a large network of informants within civil society organizations and public bodies. For the communication between Jeff Ooi and his informants to be authentic and encrypted and completely trusted by both parties, the only solution that is available is free software. Both parties have to trust it. How do I know that Jeff Ooi is not going to get me into trouble? Even if Jeff Ooi wrote the software, unless he gives me the source code, it is impossible for me to determine that he is not spying on me. In the times we live in, mobile phones are spying on you, computers are spying on you, every time you watch a movie on your Windows computer, the corporation knows that you have watched that particular movie.

You also reported of applications of free software in Cambodia.

If you were a Cambodian student and you went to check your exam results on the bulleting board, or if you were a voter and you went on the electoral roll, you would find that both lists were not in alphabetical order. This is because there was no standard encoding for the Khmer language. Why did this happen? Because the largest producer of operating systems, Microsoft, did not see Cambodia as a market big enough to build support within their operating system. In many senses this fragmented the market. Different venders started to make different standards for coding the Khmer language and if you had a document in the Khmer language and you just decided to change the font, the document would change into gibberish. So in many senses it is almost a nation that is held ransom because they don?t have buying power. And in another sense for an individual to consume the data that they had produced, if I wanted to access the data that I had produced I had to either purchase or pirate software. If I had to consume the data that my government had produced, I had to purchase or pirate proprietary software. This is where free software plays a hugely important role. It is very difficult to fill this gap with another type of software.

In a story you reported from Burma, you suggested that people should barter computer components to avoid being tracked.

This is a story that I have invented. There was a paper at the latest IEEE conference on privacy that dealt with fingerprinting technology. This technology has several very advanced features. Firstly, it does not depend on your operating system, on your hardware, but instead it takes advantage of what are called ?clock skews?, discrepancies in the hardware. It does not matter if you are behind a firewall or thousands of miles away, they can very accurately determine the identity of a computer. So what happens is that the anonymity that a Burmese dissident had because he was using shared software, and because he was using a shared network, suddenly disappears. Because now they identify the hardware itself. I was suggesting that the next time one of you meets a Burmese dissident, you actually take out some hardware of your machine and trade it with him, you share it, you barter it. Then his fingerprint is no longer correct, or maybe you are carrying his fingerprint for some time. Which further confuses people who are trying to monitor the dissidents. If you look at any space where there is anonymity, it is because of sharing. This the case with Internet kiosks for example ? people who go there are anonymous, because it is a shared access to the hardware. Sunil Abraham is an industrial and production engineer. In 1998, he founded MAHITI which aims to reduce the cost and complexity of information and communication technology for the voluntary sector by using free software.

MAHITI is a World-Information.Org partner in World-Information City, Bangalore 2005.

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