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Comment of the Week: Salil on India, RIM, My Ignorance

I lightly bashed the Indian government and Indian reader Salil put me in check rather eloquently. I thanked him for doing that, then he did it again. A tad tl;dr but worth its own thread:

Tsk tsk tsk…. this is what happens when people far removed from reality try to comment on things they know nothing about. Well, let me try to put things in perspective. India has been a victim of terrorism like no other country in the world. Israel comes a close second, but the sheer size of India and the resultant anti-terrorist efforts are beyond dispute. People in Europe and USA (and even Indians living there) cannot understand the enormity and seriousness of the problem, which is a pity considering 9/11 happened 9 years ago. Or maybe it has already faded from public memory. But anyway, the efforts of Indian govt have to be seen in the backdrop of terrorist threat and the use of modern technology and gadgets. The coordinated Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 were hatched, planned, launched and executed with the help of proxy servers, hacked/unsecured WiFi hotspots, Google Earth, GPS, VoIP phones and satellite telephony besides guns and grenades. Hence the insistence of the Indian govt that nefarious elements should not be allowed unfettered use of these modern tools.

The Indian govt does not require to spy over the citizens and its dealings with RIM, Google, Skype, Nokia or Microsoft are not aimed at that at all. Their purpose is to have the ABILITY to quickly determine the use of internet and communication tools by terrorists and deny them, in real time, the capability to use them with impunity. It is not for some draconian Department of Internal Espionage and Intimidation but for the Intelligence agencies, who find themselves constrained and unable to intercept/block communication channels between parties even after getting inputs. It is not like the alleged policy of the Chinese govt to detect and stifle dissent. You’ll be surprised at the extent of the freedom of speech and propagation of ideas available to every citizen of India.
Next, I take exception at the tenor of Doug Simmons article insinuating India as an evil country and painting companies which choose to work with the Indian govt as weak or opportunist entities. The ‘values’ that he talks about are nothing but a misplaced sense of self worth that should, at best be banished in the interest of the common good of people. Doug’s choice of Google as the likely champion of ‘net neutrality’ (LOL) also surprises me in the light of their meek surrender to the Chinese after their efforts at posturing and arm twisting (and even intervention by the US govt) failed. All these companies have the first and foremost responsibility towards their account books and stakeholders profits(I have no complaints regarding that) and any attempt to suggest that they will place “humanity” above their own interests is a utopia far removed from reality.

I praised his insight and conceded defeat, asked him to write for us, invited him to bet me 1400 rupees that Google would win, yada yada, and then he dropped this follow-up:

Doug : Thanks for the kind words. Fortunately, I’m totally ignorant about the wheeling-dealings in corporate board rooms and back channel diplomacy by govts, which makes me an unlikely candidate for accepting your wager (Hahaha, more on this later), but I can certainly try to reason about the futility of a stand-off in the instant case between political sovereigns (India) and technological bigwigs (Microsoft) as also techno-political heavyweights (Google). But first a word about the ‘Right to Corporate Judgment’. It is perfectly logical, understandable and justifiable for a corporate to take decisions and make policies to protect their financial bottom line and even a change in such policies in changed times is acceptable. Indeed, all corporates do that – that’s what the Board of Directors is meant for. The problem arises when some of the ‘heavyweights’ adopt a holier-than-thou pretense and try to pass off their economic decisions as ‘we’re-fighting-for-the-rights-of-the-common-man’ approach. Such corporates are best advised to stir clear of the temptation to play God of the Universe (that could be a nice title for a video game featuring you-know-who). Now, about the standoff in India…

1. First we should agree on the legitimacy of the Indian demand and appreciate their genuine concerns without dismissing it offhand. The insistence is for ‘legal access’ and not across-the-board handing over of keys. Why should anyone object to a perfectly legal requirement that will potentially save human lives? Are you saying that Google would want to operate in India with blood on their hands?

2. I share your concern about many more countries lining up with similar demands and that there cannot be any mechanism to determine if the need of one country is greater than the other. The cost of human life is the same everywhere, irrespective of what some zealots may think. Hence it is an issue on which countries and technology pundits should put their heads together and find a solution for the common good of everyone. Confrontation will do nothing but hit everyone’s bottom line, whether financial, social, political or human.

3. The approach of the Indian govt in the issue has been clear and justifiable from the beginning. They first approached RIM with the problem, explained their concerns and asked RIM to provide a technological solution. It was only when RIM expressed their inability to do so and even missed scheduled meetings with the authorities that the govt had to ask service providers to prepare for suspending Blackberry services. While this episode is behind us, what is the prudence behind repeating it?

4. I also fail to see the wisdom behind Asterix and Obelix comparing the size of their menhirs while India is trying to limit the cost humanity has to pay at the hands of terrorism. They should rather Get-a-Fix…. quickly.

5. “When in Rome, do as Romans do” is an adage from yesteryears, but equally relevant today. If Microsoft, Google, Nokia and Skype want to do business in India and profit from their venture, why shouldn’t they respect local traditions, share local concerns and follow local laws? Microsoft and Google have large scale operations in India and are no strangers to the ethno-social cauldron that is India. If they still try to equate the view from the corner office in Mountain View to the view from Mount Everest, it will only smack of insensitivity, nepotism, discrimination and a misplaced sense of self-worth (to use one of my favourite phrases).

This isn’t a game to show who is bigger and who will win in the end. In all probability, everyone will win just like in China. About your wager, Doug, I’d also go with you that Google will continue without handing over the keys. But that’ll be because the Indian Govt does not want the keys. It just wants local access so that they can utilize it when they need it (and which will act as a deterrent for potential wrongdoers). I’d rather put twenty on Microsoft engaging the Indian Govt proactively to find a solution and Google creating a brauhaha before folding with dignity when they’ve derived sufficient political mileage out of it.

Thanks for the offer, btw. I’ll certainly think about it when I’ve found a way to extract more spare time from my current occupation. :-)

PS – I found this interesting and insightful article on WSJ about The Indian Connection.

PSS – In other, unrelated news, Google agrees to pay $8.5 million to make Buzz privacy suits go away.

Good stuff Salil, a model to us all. You keep thinking about joining the squad but until you do I’ll just continue to jack your comments, blockquote them into new articles and slap a silly random picture and my name onto them.

Doug Simmons