Arun Mehta is an Indian media activist and educator, and President of the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment (STEM), which aims at bringing the benefits of modern telecommunications to the poor. In the course of Amsterdam's World-InfoCon he spoke to World-Information.Org about access, open source, and community radio.
Q: Arun Mehta, you are the Director of the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment in New Delhi. Which are the issues you address in your work?
A: I am basically a engineer and a software writer so one of the areas that concerns me a lot is the question of Intellectual Property (IP) in software, and since India is now a major software producer, how IP is preventing our companies from entering into the product market. Because at the moment we do that, we are under threat of litigation from the holders of the patents in the US who have by now cornered everything. As the League for Programming Freedom put it, writing software it is like walking on a pavement where individual squares belong to different people, and you donít even know which square belongs to whom, sometimes until a few years later. This is one area which is a serious concern.
I personally am also interested in the question of access and participation. The Internet only reaches two percent of the population, those who have a phone line, who know English, and are at least middle class. What about the other 98 %? The only communications device that the poor people in India can afford is a simple FM radio. We have pretty much a state monopoly in radio, and so we are very interested to see how radio can be combined with the Internet in a manner which allows poor people not only to access content, but also to participate in discussions.
Q: Are you developing such technologies yourself? What could such a combination look like in practice?
A: We have actually developed a small radio station where the transmitter only costs about 4 Euros, which a small village can afford. That type of transmitter works within a radius of 500 meters or so, which covers a typical village in India. There is a very interesting model from Sri Lanka called Kothmale Radio, where people in the local language can ask questions off the radio station, and somebody on the radio station surfs the web for the answer, and then the answer is broadcast in the radio station again in the local language. This kind of community web surfing is a very interesting model. The Internet can also be helpful in terms of sharing content among different village radio stations, so that their size can become viable in terms of getting some amount of commercials and things like that.
Q: Internet communication has been criticized for its implicit Eurocentrism, for example in terms of its reliance on the western alphabet. How do you assess the possibilities for local, non-western languages and scriptures to assert themselves in the Internet?
A: There is a problem within our countries themselves, and that is that we have not got our act together in terms of standardization of keyboards and character codes and things like that. The pity is that we seem to be waiting for Microsoft to standardize these for us. So partly the problem is our own. The other way in which we are looking at this is the whole question of speech interfaces, where a lot of work is going on in the west in terms of speech recognition and so on. Some of it is also going on in our part of the world but a lot more needs to be done. What is required is for us to have far more people on the Internet, so that it becomes more interesting to provide content Ė there is this chicken-and-egg problem that we always have on the Internet. In the Internet Engineering Task Force there are a lot of initiatives looking at how these other languages might come in, but I am afraid we still need to be a lot more active in this field. The problem is that a lot of people who are on the Internet in India today are English literate people they really donít have a great need to bring local language stuff on the Internet. But that is changing slowly.
Q: India is often referred to as one of the showcase examples of how a so-called third world country can actually adopt a Silicon Valley model of development. Where do you see the limitations of that model?
A: First and foremost we really do not have that many good programmers and computer professionals as the world seems to think. There were a large number of trained people in government laboratories and educational institutions, but many of them were lured away by the multinationals with salaries which by Indian standards were very high. And there is not that much of quality education in information technology that is taking place and that is a severe bottleneck and a severe limitation. We donít have that many good teachers in information technology because the industry pays much better. So very few good people are left in the academics of information technology. Where I would see a hope and possibility to get a lot of more professionals involved in teaching, to use the Open Source software as a basis for educating people in this field so that people developing Open Source software and working with the top professionals in the world also get a high class education. Education is definitely an area that needs a lot of attention, particularly in terms of quality of education that is being imparted. And without that I think that the leading position that India has cannot be sustained.
Q: How relevant is the Open Source model in the Indian case, how strong are the initiatives in this field? Evidently the IP business is strongly present everywhere, but in the case of developing countries occupies a particularly sensitive area. What is your perspective on that?
A: We just had a visit from Bill Gates who spent several days in India. Most of his visit was to try and counter the effect of Linux in India because he is afraid that the next generation of developers should develop for Microsoft and not for Linux. Now that, I think, speaks volumes of how important this is for the Indian context. What we have been insisting, and the government is slowly coming around to that view, is that public money should be spent on software which the public can also see. So it should only be spent on Open Source. And that is something that is interesting for a lot of governments also now. In terms of Open Source vs. the other model I think that for a small developer in India it is very difficult to take a product and do the actual marketing of it on a global level, which is what you need to do these days, and then at the end of it not have somebody like Microsoft coming and take the idea away. Open Source and the GPL license, is a powerful way for us to get in. I have myself started developing Open Source software and I am very happy to see the kind of cooperation I am getting. For example, there is a project I am doing for Prof. Steven Hawking and part of the work is being done by, you could say, the poorest students of the world. These are rural Bangladesh students who have been taught computers by the Learn Foundation These students are helping us with the software - and they are doing this work free of cost. I think this is a wonderful example of how people can work together in software across countries. That is what the Open Source model is allowing us to do - it allows us to work in multinational teams really effortlessly and that is something wonderful to see. But there need to be many more such projects in Open Source. People really need to see this as a serious activity, not just as something that they do in their spare time.