Tuesday, September 29, 2015

This is about internet.org a.k.a Free Basics from Facebook

In May this year, Mark Zuckerburg announced taking an altruistic turn and pledged Facebook’s resources in providing internet access to some parts of our planet, the aim was to provide free basic internet access on a platform that was christened internet.org. This month that got re-christened as Free Basics for Facebook. There was a truly desi spin given to this measure which was identified with #ConnectIndia, the motive remained the same.

A lot of charitable work has been done by Tech Entrepreneurs from North America. Ground breaking research in combating AIDS, eradicating polio and with that goal in mind for leprosy. Contraception, infant care and nutritional supplements were all led at some point by or are continuing to be led by foundations funded by big corporates, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is just one such example. With that background a lot of people welcomed Facebook wanting to provide basic internet service to regions that haven’t been exposed to it so far.

Imagine a village, where a basic phone that has an internet browser is available but with no infrastructure to let the phone access the billions of web sites that constitute what’s essentially known as the INTERNET. Imagine a service provider, who embarks on provisioning GPRS, EDGE or 3G or LTE connections, and get these phones on the information superhighway. Imagine the poor farmer being able to access weather patterns or current prices for his crop, to be able to carry out financial transactions without having to visit the nearby town’s bank.

Imagine the farmer’s child, accessing the finest of lectures on trigonometry or fine arts or literature or ideas for that school project. Imagine the lady of the household being able to access all the video and music and be able to chat with her distant cousin in a foreign land or another village without wasting money on phone calls that go dead in the monsoons. The intent in provisioning free basic internet access can never be faulted. So where is the problem?

The problem is in how Facebook wants to solve this conundrum. Facebook wants to tie up with internet service providers in the region and get them to allow access exclusively to http://internet.org. On this platform Facebook has curated a set of websites and made available as part of it’s free basic internet service. No points for guessing that Facebook is the only social media platform available, not Google+ or Ello. The platform is also not going to support HTTPS URLs which means no encryption of data between the user and the destination on the internet. To cite just one problem with this, if you were to access your bank account on a HTTP connection a sniffer can access your username and password bloody easily.

Facebook therefore wants to direct these new users to a tiny set of websites that constitute the internet. In the name of providing free basic internet all Facebook is doing is finding newer users in the developing world, and since they can’t afford the costs associated with internet connectivity, provides them with seemingly free access but restricts them to a platform it has built (internet.org) and thereby increase it’s own customer base and therefore deny them access to those billions of websites that would otherwise be available on the internet. Now if anyone thinks, “Isn’t this how the missionaries landed in Africa with the Bible?” it won’t be misrepresentative.

Why would they do that? The answer is fairly simple. Google, Facebook and Twitter are the significant platforms in the world in terms of number of users on them as well as number of active users. I’ve completely disregarded data from Chinese social networking sites since they operate in isolation compared to the rest of the world. Google and Facebook have almost the same number of active users (around 1.4 billion). Google’s revenue last year was $66 billion while Facebook’s was a little short of $12.5 billion. For approximately the same amount of users Google rakes in more than 5 times in revenue.

There is going to be significant pressure on Facebook’s stock in maximizing its potential to earn more dollars per user. Facebook’s organic growth has reached a plateau. It acquired WhatsApp for a gargantuan valuation to add to its user base and it probably made sense too. It hasn’t come up with a clear roadmap in integrating the platforms though it has tried to innovate with making calls possible between WhatsApp users. How else can Facebook grow?

That’s where the air brushed altruism comes into picture and that’s in getting more people onto their platform but since they have their own challenges Facebook sets out to solve one such challenge, by giving them internet access but restricting it to internet.org. After a few years you’ll be surprised when someone who grew up with Free Basics from Facebook says “We have Facebook” when what they actually should be saying is “We have Internet”.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The state of inter-city, inter-state road transport in India

Yet another bus has met with an accident near Haveri on it’s way from Bangalore to Mumbai, lots of human lives lost, this happened yesterday. Recently we heard about the tragic death of close to 50 passengers heading back to their home towns for Diwali on the ill fated luxury bus that went from Bangalore to Hyderabad. Sometime back a bus fell off a bridge into a gorge killing a lot of passengers travelling in it, this bus was bound to Shirdi, most passengers would have been pilgrims. This writer has been a first hand witness to a gory accident near Chithode on NH 47 on 4th Nov 2011 involving a truck carrying airline fuel and a luxury bus full of passengers from Bangalore headed to Coimbatore. The bus caught fire after colliding with the tanker and in the ensuing chaos a lot of lives were lost.

The blame usually is first placed on these new hi-tech buses: Volvo, Mercedes Benz, Corona, which are well equipped to deal with emergencies better than Ashok Leyland, Eicher or TATA buses. These hi-tech buses have superior suspension, use fire retardant materials for their construction and have excellent automated mechanisms to manoeuvre the vehicle and bring it to a sudden stop if needed. Drivers are the number one reasons for accidents and it’s not like any driver would want to crash his bus wantonly. Most drivers are contracted or paid per trip and they stand to gain if they keep driving without taking a rest. That results in fatigue and therefore misjudgement which leads to a fatal accident. But there is a larger lacuna that is being exploited to the hilt by greedy bus operators and that is of supply and demand.

Road transport between states used to be exclusive domains of the state governments with the state run transport corporations plying buses connecting cities, usually as reciprocals almost exclusively. All this changed drastically in the late nineties when private bus operators began plying buses exploiting loopholes in the Motor Vehicles Act which allowed them to run buses on hire or for tours which was used as a shroud to run regular inter-city or inter-state services. This sector has grown into a fierce monster that had made millionaires out of bus operators, earned lots of taxes and bribes for the state’s apparatus, helps the well heeled reach their destinations quickly and comfortably and yet is a scary ecosystem that the state has no jurisdiction over anymore.

In the late 90’s, this writer solely depended on SETC (erstwhile Thiruvalluvar) buses to commute between Madras (Chennai today) and Coimbatore. There were two other buses operated by Cheran Transport Corporation (known as TNSTC – Cbe now) between these two cities. The total seats available on a Friday or Sunday back then was less than 250. Compare that to the 1900 seats across the 50 buses that ply between the two cities today, you can imagine the scale at which buses are run and the economy that flourishes as a result. Entry taxes at check posts, bakeries, hotels / canteens, petrol bunks, toll gates, drivers, cleaners, automobile workshops are examples of some areas where money flows in a licit manner. But there is a  large chunk of revenue that is made illicitly primarily by the State apparatus: Transport department, Commercial Taxes department, Police etc.

The bulk of our country still commutes long distances by train. One can only imagine the level of bribes that must be exchanging hands in the Railway Ministry to ensure there is always a supply demand deficit in the Railways  to ensure the crowd that doesn’t make it onto trains gets to use the services offered by the private road transportation industry. Their pricing is based on whim. How else can one fathom the cost of tickets going up by a factor of 2 or 3 when it’s a long holiday weekend? Are these buses licensed to transport cargo, which they load to the brim most of the days in every space the bus has and on it’s roof? Is it completely legal in selling tickets in the name of “conducted tour” but what they are essentially doing is infringe into the domain of state transport? How does one explain the silence of the state government, every single state in the country is united in this cause, and the state transport employee’s trade unions in this domain? A lot of questions remain unanswered, will the State wake up and listen?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The politics about Durga Shakti Nagpal and Civil servants

The suspension of a 2010 cadre civil servant in Uttar Pradesh has been latched onto by the media and is playing on TV day in and day out with bits and pieces of new information coming out. My understanding of this story has been through the media and I’m attempting a bit of reading between the lines. Let’s assume that the civil servant didn’t do any wrong and has applied sound judgement in the case she’s accused of malpractice.

Did the ruling government suspend the civil servant only because a minority community is party to the structure in question?

Is the opposition party at the centre crying the loudest for the same reason?

The Great Indian Bureaucracy has had stalwarts in it’s service. Year after year one hears of stories of simple individuals exhibiting great heights of integrity and ethics despite being in government service where the power they wield is substantial and the opportunities for making money under the table looms large.

The District Collect of Madurai who stood up to the mafia that controlled the town and reached out to the marginalized, who spends his time today as the Managing Director of Co-optex is a good example of a decent civil servant.

There are have been instances of personnel who took their job seriously and would never bow down to power like this Police officer who towed the Prime Minister’s car, who rose to the heights of service in the force but despite which couldn’t take charge as Police Commissioner of the national capital. A grudge she probably still nurses inside !

We’ve also seen examples of civil servants who made it their life’s ambition to cleanse our polity of corruption and take up the aam-aadhmi’s cause like a crusade but who’ve then been massive disappointments by cozying up to the executive and taken up prestigious or plum postings after retirement, literally peddling the agenda of the government of the day.

That brings me to JM Lyngdoh, who retired as the Chief Election Commissioner of India and was lauded for the conduct of elections in two key Indian states in the early part of this century. A rare breed of civil servant who stood up to what he thought was morally and ethically right and hasn’t sucked up to the executive after retiring, like he vociferously declared in this interview to the BBC 10 years ago.

It’s another matter that the Chief Minister of one of the two states that went to polls in that period kept referring to him as “James Michael Lyngdoh” every time he spoke to the media sort of alluding to his religion and therefore making him seem like an enemy of the majority. There was no way JM Lyngdoh could be an Indian in his books that he even asked if the man came from Italy. However, India at that time was fortunate to have AB Vajpayee at it’s helm who chided his party’s own Chief Minister for all the mischief, ABV’s disappearance from the political scene is sorely missed today.

P.S: Politicians look at Civil Servants as “slaves”, literally, people who can be ordered around and dropped at one’s whim. An example for this can be seen in this TV debate. Make no mistake, this contempt for the bureaucracy exists in all political parties and not just the one seen in this video.



Tuesday, December 18, 2012

TEDx Chennai

TEDx Chennai has been cancelled, Kiruba Shankar has stepped down from being the brand ambassador for India. Here is Kiruba’s explanation around the whole controversy.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Ranbir Kapoor has been an actor who has consistently surprised audiences with his acting skills. Rocket Singh to Rockstar, Ranbir Kapoor has steadily bettered his performance, I’m skipping Saawariya since it’s a movie I haven’t seen in the cinemas.

Barfi is a refreshing attempt in popular hindi cinema, the plot would have been a fusion of O Henry and Charlie Chaplin with the lead actor borrowing heavily from the latter. His mannerisms and almost every light scene is a tribute to Chaplin. The production design is excellent, once gets a feel of Calcutta of the late 70’s. The hills are always a joy to see on screen, I presume to shoot too, so nothing great about Darjeeling and the toy train but all the night scenes are lit, framed and exposed wonderfully.

This is a fairy tale, an Indian one at that and while it plays it regales you through it. The opening is a cheeky song that asks you to behave in the cinema hall rather humourously and the movie begins. Anurag Basu comes from the Bhatt family of movie making. Gangster, Murder and Kites which apparently didn’t get any wind beneath it’s wings to take off. It’s surprising that he was able to cobble together such a warm movie. Being diagnosed with cancer and recovering from it probably made Anurag reflect on life.

There is one scene which exhibits how neatly the story is made to unfold. Barfi (deaf and mute) after being paid a donation by the girls father after being mistaken for someone asking for alms sees the girl and her fiancee, walks out of the house, there’s rain and thunder, no background music and his cycle chain comes away not giving him the luxury of speeding away from the moment of abject rejection, confronts the girl, angry and in squeaks and then lets it all go and asks her to smile and goes away.

Pritam’s music isn’t catchy, I guess they meant to keep it that way. The motif of showing musicians on screen making the transition between scenes is replicated in Barfi too, the background music is not just accordion, guitar and violin but piano heavy too. The whole movie is one grand con on the mind. Never during the movie did the laughs stop and once it got over one realizes it’s a sad little story, one that highlights the mistakes people make in the battle between head and heart.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sim-sat, CNN-IBN & LIVE programming

Last night CNN-IBN issued this apology for relaying clips of Sri Sri Ravishankar in a live debate but where the guru’s interview was pre-recorded yet displayed as LIVE. It’s rare when the media admits to an error and one ought to laud this channel for being honest about it. But is that all? Was there a deliberate attempt at bluffing and the apology came quickly after being caught at it?

CNN-IBN’s apology says “We carried a pre-recorded interview of the Art Of Living Founder and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar without explicitly mentioning that the interview had been recorded a couple of hours earlier in the day. Since the interview appeared during a live debate format, it sent out the wrong message to viewers. There was absolutely no malafide intention on our part, no disrespect was intended to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the error is deeply regretted.”

In today’s age where every viewer doesn’t rely entirely on TV to spell out the day’s news I think the producer of this show was stupid in thinking he can get away with making Sagarika Ghose, the anchor, pose questions to the guru and make it look like he was replying LIVE. Its also a little far fetched to believe that Sagarika Ghose, a seasoned journalist herself, bought the argument and acted to bluff the audience.

CNN-IBN isn’t the only channel guilty of sim-sat, every channel does it. But none yet have embarrassed themselves as much as this channel last night.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Anna Hazare Project – saga continues …

Another revolution came upon our country, the last time I missed most of it, this time I didnt. This one was flagged off on the 16th of August 2011 and ended on the 28th of August 2011 at 10 AM IST. This time Kisan Baburao Hazare went on an indefinite fast (re-labelled his fast unto death to avoid future court cases perhaps!) with the following demands:

  1. Table the Jan LokPal bill in Parliament in the monsoon session itself
  2. Bring the Prime Minister and the Judiciary under it’s ambit
  3. Also bring the conduct of MPs inside the Parliament under it’s purview
  4. Get the bill passed by 30th August 2011
  5. Clear Anna Hazare’s name from corruption charges levelled against him or file an FIR

On 27th August the Parliament in an unprecedented show of solidarity, government and opposition came together, debated and accepted the following demands:

  1. On publishing a Citizen’s charter in all govt departments
  2. On bringing the lower bureaucracy under the purview of the LokPal
  3. To establish LokAyukta’s in all states

The moot question that then comes in our heads is if the fast was worth the time and effort of the nation and most importantly risking the life of a 74 year old man? From taking maximalistic stances in the initial interactions with representatives from the government what happened that Baburaoji’s team settled for far too less in the end?

The media stood on the fence, like the BJP, in the buildup to the fast. From being on the fence to become voices for the movement the media did a complete volte face. Logic lost to chest thumping and populist sloganeering. Nobody dared asked questions to the contrary. Everything that the IAC members did was absolute truth if one had to believe the news channels. A simple and rather straight forward allegation that the IAC has accepted donation from the Ford Foundation became blasphemous in the sense that the media was attributed it to be an attempt to call the IAC member a foreign agent.

This despite the fact that none of the news channels found it safe to catapult their star anchors into the thick of the RamLila action, nor were their female anchors able to get into the crowd to get reactions. Nobody dared report that a big chunk of the crowd was under the influence of alcohol and rampant loss of purses and cellphones went unreported. Delhi police noticed the highest number of traffic violations by Anna crusaders on bikes. The policemen who were subjected to taunts and then physical roughing up raised a squeak, nobody wanted to pursue the cause of the forces. The media literally took over the roll of PR agency for Baburaoji’s fast and his team.

Arvind Kejriwal made fiery speeches, he’s the modern day Mark Anthony. Kiran Bedi made a joke of herself out of frustrations I’d suppose. Retd Justice Santhosh Hegde appears to have lost his patience with the negotiators that he started asking the fast to be called off towards the end. Swami Agnivesh appears to have been the trojan horse playing both sides in a way, he too gave up on the fast a couple of days before it ended. Arindham Chaudhri’s speech during the fast was puke inducing, sample this: "We live 60-70 yrs because we kill 200 million people before 40 yrs".

Vijay, an actor from South Indian blockbusters who hasn’t seen a hit in some time, showed up on stage and mouthed inane lines, one such was thus: "This movement has triggered soliditary (sic) nationwide". I guess he meant “solidarity”, his English teachers in Loyola would be cringing in their seats. It’s one thing to mouth half baked lines in the movies to cheering front benchers and another to attempt the same in front of a live audience. Om Puri took the award for the most useless line by mouthing: "Keep the liquor bottle in the pocket, put the 200 bucks in the pocket, take the blanket home and vote to whoever you want to.”

I’m sure someone in the government’s side would have exclaimed “yes !!!!” when Vilasrao Deshmukh went up on stage to give Baburao Hazare the charter written by the government and parliament agreeing to three of his pussy footed demands. The symbolism of the moment was chuckle inducing. Here was an erstwhile Chief Minister who had to give up his seat due to corruption allegations was on stage with the high priest of the fight against corruption acting as a courier between him and the Government.

Anyone when he/she has power will use it to further his/her own agenda. Let’s say one wants to learn yoga and joins the classes of a particular guru and guess what? At some point the guru or his ilk will try to use the following to further their own social or political agendas. The best example on display was how an organization that proclaims it’s basic purpose “is to inspire, to stoke, and to nurture this innate search in every being, helping them realize the ultimate potential within” brought volunteers on the streets (In Coimbatore) supporting the anti-corruption movement.

Right from knee jerk status messages on Facebook to a utopian dream of wiping out poverty by bringing back the black money stashes in tax havens, most if not all of the outrageous claims made by the cheer leading crowd on the internet went unchallenged. The media channels single minded myopic pursuit of the fast meant that a lot of issues with serious national / regional importance was lost in the cacophony of the reality show that was unfolding.

Kanimozhi’s counsel dragged the PM into the 2G scam asking the court to list him as a witness since it was alleged he knew about license allotments. Monsoonal rains and floods rendered hundreds homeless in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Tamil New Year was shifted back to 14th April by Jayalalithaa who also announced the 1000+ crore new assembly building will be converted into a government hospital on the lines of AIIMS. Vaiko attempted to rouse linguistic passion by says Tamilnadu would secede from the Union of India if the Rajiv killers were hanged. BS Yedyurrappa moved an application for bail in the Karnataka High Court. West Bengal was rechristened Poschim Bangla by Mamtadi. I guess this week all of this events should re-occur and replayed.

The Delhi Police exhibited extreme restraint to avoid any bad publicity and have come up with their head held high. From being blamed for short sighted Govt reactions and taking Baburaoji to Tihar to guarding the fast venue for 14 days without any untoward incident, they’ve come a long way. Kisan Baburao Hazare can live without food for much longer I suspect, but he and his ilk will wither if there are no cameras pointed at them, no questions posed to them. Their energy and strength is not the people as they proudly proclaim but the media and for good reason perhaps.

Everyone has a right to support a cause, to speak against a cause. Everyone needs to have a point of view, search for and gather facts. We all should stop being herded, by politicians, by anyone else. Practice what we preach and we’d have made a world of a difference to our town, city, state and country. This land is ours, let’s make it a better place for ourselves and the future. Jai hind !

Disclaimer : The views expressed in the article are the result of the utmost disgust this author felt when the nation was almost held to a ransom by a group purporting to be voices of the citizens. The author assumes no legal responsibility from anyone using it's content in part or in full and will not assume any liabilities for any consequences arising out of it's usage. This article is written in good faith to present a fairly balanced point of view to an issue which is of importance to the country today. This article has also tried to be fair and objective in putting forth the facts of the matter and scrupulously refrains from alluding motives to any particular social, political or religions group. The author does not intend to violate any law and would be glad to comply with existing regulations if any part of this article is offending or appears hateful.