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Tech blog

Government network

It has been reported that the Government of India may consider setting up an indigenous alternative to Facebook and Twitter. The idea is to join hands with a big media house in this effort and even partially fund the initiative. The provocation: these networks don’t take the government interception requests seriously enough; nor have they agreed to locate their servers in India giving physical control to the government. So, the government wants to create alternative sites, which will be more responsive to them.
Indian officials have tried various tricks to get these networks under control. Most recently they tried, though unsuccessfully, to serve summons to Google, Facebook and few other companies through the US officials for carrying objectionable content. But the idea would perhaps go down as the most hair-brained proposal in this direction. Building a full-fledged social network and giving it a momentum is no joke; Google, with all its resources, is still trying to build Google Plus.

To understand the Indian government’s digital capability, spend some time on the official NIC sites. Their design is outdated, links broken and information outdated. The track record of the domain experts  - the big media houses – is no better. They have not really set the digital world afire with their innovations; what they have done so far is to copy ideas which become popular. Even in areas, where they should have naturally dominated, say online classifieds, they are ceding space to start-ups.  The government has had problems with Gmail as well in the past. Three years ago, Google refused to provide real-time access to its email servers. Blackberry has refused to hand over encryption keys. So, will the government start competing with these companies as well?

The only reason this idea merits a thought is, it shows how the bureaucracy is struggling to come to terms with the online world. Armed with punitive powers, Indian officials are quick to arrest people to counter perceived slander or threat to public order. Six months ago, two girls were arrested for criticising Bal Thackeray on Facebook. Following a national outcry, the charges were dropped and the errant cops were arrested. This month, a civil rights activist was arrested for posting information on ‘illegal activities’ of an MLA  and a governor on Facebook.  The Supreme Court had to step in to say that such arrests had to be approved by an officer of the rank of the Inspector General of Police from now on. What is required is not a government-sponsored network but a change in the mindset of officials. The global online firms are known to use their discretion while assisting lawful interception requests. The western governments have learnt to live with them. That is what India also needs to do.

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