End of Free Surfing?



The Internet has become a medium that enables people all over to connect to
and display information freely. In the short time that it has been around, it
has become the best medium of linking people across the world with no
constraints of distance and time. The Internet as a leveler has higher
significance for countries like India with poor infrastructure and lower
opportunities.

Unfortunately, in India an unhealthy practice of restricting access to sites
has been taking place off and on. The first instance of this was when access to
the Internet was available only through a monopoly service provider. This was
contrary to the license given by the Government of India. At that point, a suit
filed in the Supreme Court resulted in preventing this practice.

The scene has completely changed now. There are nearly 200 service providers
who have applied to the government for licenses and nearly 100–almost all in
private hands–actually operating. And there are several licensed international
telecommunications service providers now, mostly in private hands. For apparent
commercial reasons, the licensed ISP’s have now begun blocking access to sites
where other service providers have operating businesses. If this trend
continues, the Internet will soon be wiped out. The loss to the country will be
gigantic. Firstly, all current economic indicators show that for the foreseeable
future, forex inflows will be closely linked to business conducted either on the
open Internet or on securely managed data transmission over Internet links.
Secondly, the government itself is banking on using the Net to make information
available to the rural and agricultural sector, as also poorer classes. Internet
connectivity is being made available in rural areas with a view to lowering the
cost of access to communications. By limiting the provision of services within
the ambit of this medium, the service providers are directly restricting the
rights of consumers to affordable communication and means of expression.

Nasscom executive council member Vijay Mukhi says, "Regulation of
content from the Internet has been left to the choice of the consumer. What is
the point of investing so much in telecom, by both government and private, if
the benefits do not reach the common man?" Limiting access to technologies
such as voice applications will have dire consequences for emerging services
such as distance learning. If this continues there will be no way of ensuring
that consumers gain access to public information and services such as land
records, license applications and other such efficient means of governance in
the future. Converging technologies such as video, voice, graphics and data will
make the Internet the most powerful medium for business and entertainment.
Restricting access threatens Indian competitiveness in a very valuable business.

Vikram Krishna, IUCI executive council member, pegs the IT industry’s forex
earnings at $10 billion in 2008. Of this, $5 billion is expected from such
critical areas as embedded technologies for handhelds. Preventing free access to
these markets will be disastrous, he adds. The government has permitted ISPs to
offer Internet telephony effective from April 1, 2002.

During the first week of May 2002, certain ISP’s apparently denied access
to various other Internet Telephony service provider (ITSP) websites/IP
addresses that had begun offering ITSP services after obtaining the required
license and fully complying with the government’s policy in this regard.
Apparently the ones that have denied access to other ISP’s have done so with a
view to force subscribers of these ISP’s to use only their own Internet
Telephony services, which in many cases are not even available as yet.

The blocking of sites and services in the past has already cost the country
dearly in terms of development of indigenous technologies in this area.
Developers and service providers from countries such as Israel and Singapore
apart from the US now dominate this field. In retrospect, one can only term such
blocking as anti-consumer and also an unnecessary regulation of content from the
Internet. Lets hope someone sees the silver lining hidden there before its too
late!

Rahul Gupta/Cyber News Service In
Mumbai

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