The web is a basic right

Not all of us are rich, but the Net allows us to live rich lives watching and reading good stuff

Readers may recall that the name Faheema Shirin popped up in the news several times earlier this year. On being expelled from her college hostel for challenging a rule that required students to surrender their mobile phones every evening, this II BA student from Kozhikode took the matter to court with the help of the Legal Collective for Student Rights. The challenge foregrounded one simple fact — that the rule was unreasonable in that it restricted Internet access at a time when such use did not interfere with academic activity.

The college offered the defence that they had a great library while remaining silent about library timings and hostel curfews, and that they did not prevent the use of laptops. Justice P V Asha, who heard the case, did not comment on this Marie-Antoinette-style distinction between laptops and cell phones, except to remark dryly that it was untenable. She also reminded the college of the 2016 UN resolution on seeing Internet access as a basic human right, especially in the case of disadvantaged groups and women, while striking down the expulsion.

There are several fascinating things to think about in this story: the arrant technophobia that bedevils our educational institutions, that we tend to make more rules for women students than for men as a matter of course, that colleges and universities are slowly beginning to resemble the repressive state that is their not-so-bountiful mother, that capitalism which is supposed to be the last standing guarantor of the open society seems capable only of turning our institutions into Cruella-esque nannies rather than into alma maters, and indeed the supreme irony that the Kashmir lockdown is happening in the same country where such an enlightened decision could come from a lower court.

This idea of the Internet as a basic human right got further played last week, when Kerala’s finance minister Thomas Isaac lobbed a version of this phrase while announcing that 20 lakh BPL (below poverty line) households would receive free Internet access by way of a Rs 1,548 crore Kerala Fibre Optic Network Project to be completed in December 2020.

Readers in Karnataka should perhaps send copies of this announcement with no more than a question mark every day to Shriman Yeddyurappa till he opens his eyes to the fact that Karnataka has been overtaken long ago by Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana on village-level connectivity. The man who showed great enterprise in ferrying Gangajal across the state during his last tenure should not find it too hard to bring the Amrit of Internet access to each of our 869 villages with zero connectivity, and improving the occasional access that others seem to have.

What we need in addition to the enshrinement of Internet access is recognition of what it implies. That every citizen, irrespective of their purchasing power, has the basic, inalienable right to access whatever might constitute Culture in their estimation. This may, at its meanest, mean no more than a spate of TikTok videos, or Internet Hate, or indeed, Good Morning messages. Even if it is only a minority that shows greater curiosity than this, the freedom to be part of such a minority is the disruptive engine that chronically unequal societies like our own may need.

I remember a time when watching a film meant a long period of tapasya. You heard about it, you read reviews, you read interviews, and a couple of years later, you got to watch it if you were lucky. You had to wait. Sometimes it got more complicated than that — many other constellations needed to align with yours. I read, for instance, in 1999 about Wim Wenders making Buena Vista Social Club, a documentary about some game old Cuban musicians who refused to give up. In 2004, a friend returning from the US got me the DVD, which was great news till I remembered I had no way of playing it. After patient scrimping, I bought a DVD Player several months later, and then found that it was locked for the India region. Cut to several weeks later, when another kind friend taught me how to crack this code. You get the picture.

The Internet, and specifically Bram Cohen’s Bit Torrent from the early 2000s, changed all that forever. The culture of downloading and uploading with Torrents, Lib Gen and Sci-Hub that became speedily possible have transformed Indian universities in ways that are not yet been fully documented. The simple point that it illustrates is that the right to access culture is nothing unless it is for free. If we are to talk about poorer countries like ours spanning the knowledge divide, it has to come from protecting the right to download and upload what is otherwise unavailable, and perhaps in making this skill a formal learning requirement.

There is the contentious issue of copyright, and the just cause of paying the artist and creator. We can set aside the ideas of ownership and rights to ask a simple question. If capitalism can say Caveat Emptor, then can it not accept that allowing the emptor to sample and experience is part of the game?

If individuals have the freedom to build their libraries of watching, reading and listening based on interest rather than in response to hardsell, can that bring something new into existence? If an audience is allowed to form, a somewhat freer market will naturally follow — audiences should perhaps regulate markets rather than the other way round. The abnormal pricing of DVDs, for instance, caused piracy, and piracy ‘caused’ the cheap Moser Baer pricing of a decade ago.

From my own experience, the Internet as library has meant an escape from the deadly effects of atrociously bad TV, cinema and music, into a kind of free-floating xenophilia. I remember some kind soul handing me Kronikken, a fascinating account of Denmark rebuilding after World War II, intertwined with its broadcasting history, and rewatching it several times. I have met hard disks where films from China and Taiwan sit next to each other without animosity. I know of others in which all episodes of Fairy Tale Theater, presented by Shelley Duvall, and once seen on DoorDarshan, are to be found. Likewise I have looked enviously on someone who found the bandwidth to download a glorious torrent titled ‘Czech Golden Treasure Top 100 films’.

From such peeking have I also learnt that comics and graphic novels come alive much better on a computer due to a nifty bit of freeware titled ComicBook Reader. People like these will never have a million dollars, but perhaps they have lived far more richly in watching, reading and listening as they have done over the last 15 years or so. Maybe this is what governments and markets are really afraid of?

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