Column : Ive fixed telecom, lets do facebook now

Written by Rishi Raj | Updated: Dec 8 2011, 08:13am hrs
Politicians are the same all over the world. They promise to make bridges where there are no rivers. This oft-quoted remark, half in jest, best explains the nature of our politicos in general and ministers in specific. Before we come to telecom minister Kapil Sibals latest fadto regulate content on social networking sites like Facebook, Yahoo!, etc, to check objectionable and blasphemous contentthe following anecdote would best explain the priorities of our ministers. Sometime during 1997-98, when NDAs Sushma Swaraj was the telecom minister, one day she hurriedly called a press conference. Since non-payment of licence fees by operators was a big issue then, naturally all reporters rushed in. However, they were in for a disappointment. The internet was fledgling stuff those days and Swaraj had found that some inane site in Chandigarh was posting obscene stuff, and she was taking action against it. Irate reporters were quick to protest. Madam, why bother about such sites, why dont you fix the MTNL landline services (around then, landline phones were the mainstay for most) A downpour in Delhi and the phones go out of order, was the common complaint.

Coming back to present, Sibals act and convening a hurried press conference on a holiday at his residence where reporters sat on the grass, is no different in context and content than that of Swarajs more than 10 years ago. Then also nobody had noticed that inane website and today also the majority had not noticed (or ignored) the objectionable and blasphemous content that riled Sibal. Then also the telecom sector had important issues to be addressed and today the scenario is no different.

But since Sibal has decided to regulate the social media networks and make them adhere to the cultural ethos of India, one hopes his actions would not stop at the net only but go far beyond. After all, internet penetration in India is still lowat 112 millionand this also is not the number of connections but users! Come to social networking sites, the number is even lower, at around 25 million. Move beyond the net in any city and go on to alleys, lanes, public transport, trains, and public lavatories and the walls are littered with vulgar and explicit graffiti. They are blasphemous many a time and the caricatures drawn at these places make it clear theres plenty of talent out there when it comes to art. But nobody pays attention to this graffiti. Now that the minister plans to crack down on Facebook, perhaps the graffiti writers will get busier! Maybe district level officials will take a leaf out of Sibals booksthat despite their punishing workloads, theyll focus on keeping the cities walls clean.

The minister is smart enough to know, and even his officials will advise him, that merely checking such websites wont do. After all, technology is two steps ahead of regulation. If such sites are regulated, the mischievous lot would move to the e-mail sites such as Gmail and Yahoo! and even SMSs via mobile phones. Imagine if the same kind of stuff Sibal is trying to check moves on via MMSs or SMSs and in mails. To check them, Sibal should next ask the mobile operators to regulate such an exchange of messages and video clips and, if any such mails are sent, the website should have firewalls to block them! Pakistan recently did this, and came up with 1,600 objectionable words that needed screening. On a separate note, the move will throw up all manner of opportunities since most technical experts believe it is not feasible to do the kind of screening the minister wantsIndias enterprising software industry has just got another challenge to rise to!

Last but not the least, given the minister is an expert in counterfactual mathematicsremember his zero-loss theory on 2G and the colossal loss the NDA caused by moving from upfront licence fee to revenue sharehe should set up a team to examine the loss to the exchequer by subscribers violating rules governing telephony. Until some years ago, internet telephony was banned in India but people were using computers to make calls overseas. Surely this would have caused losses to the government Internet telephony is still partially allowed, meaning while computer-to-computer calls can be made, a call from a computer to a mobile or a landline phone cannot be made. Still, people make such calls by using all manner of gadgets freely available in the market. Now, Sibals ministry wants to remove this restriction but there are issues of level-play field in terms of payment of licence fee, etc, so obviously theres a case of revenue loss which should be looked into.

One hopes the minister will take a holistic look at the problems afflicting us!

rishi.raj@expressindia.com