A unique and unlikely ‘satyagraha’ by an American to free ‘knowledge’ 

Governments and businesses are hiding knowledge behind paywalls and restricting knowledge to only those who can pay an exorbitant price, complains Carl Malamud

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Ashlin Mathew

Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free…
…In to that heaven of freedom, my father,
- Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali

“Universal access to knowledge is the great promise of our times. It is what the Internet could make real. The Internet should be more than online shopping and WhatsApp messages, though of course those are great things. But, we should reach higher,” says Carl Malamud, the remarkable American activist who has taken on the Government of India. He believes knowledge should be free and has waged a lonely battle for 25 years and more.

Malamud, a frequent visitor to India, responds to questions put to him by Ashlin Mathew about his project and his interest in India. “Private corporations have claimed important segments of human knowledge as their exclusive property, an overreach of their rights under the law,” he laments and adds ruefully, “Governments are all too slow to change”. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: What kind of information are you making public? Are Indians interested?

A. Our non-profit, non-commercial non-governmental organisation has been building up a very nice collection of materials that seem to have great interest in India.

The standards like the factory safety code etc. are hugely popular in India, particularly among engineering students and with city and town public safety officials, neither of which had access to documents such as the Building Code of India because it costs so much. The code costs Rs 14,000! For a book!

One of our other very popular collections is Hind Swaraj. It has the complete collected works of Gandhiji, Pandit Nehru, Dr Ambedkar, and many other fascinating materials having to do with the fight for Independence. The collection has 129 audio files of Gandhiji speaking on All India Radio in 1947 and 1948, a fascinating glimpse into the last year of his amazing life.

We’re getting several million views a month from India, so I do think Indians are very interested!

Q: What made you decide to put on your website free versions of the country’s regulations, laws and codes?

A. I began by putting US laws, regulations, and codes online but then I realised that access to the law is a problem all over the world. If our democracies are to be ruled by an informed citizenry, we must all be able to read the law, discuss the law, and suggest changes in the law!

When I approached Dr Pitroda, who was working for the Prime Minister at the time, and we discussed why technical public safety standards were not available for people to read, he encouraged me to redouble my efforts in India. Those efforts have been very rewarding for me personally, getting to know Sam Pitroda, getting to visit the Sabarmati Ashram, and many other things. But, I also think it is natural that my efforts should span both India and the US, the two largest and most vibrant democracies in our world.

Q: Hasn’t this led to legal action? Do you think the government will be able to claim copyright on these standards?

A. When we first started posting Indian Standards, BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) objected. We took the logical next step, which was a formal petition to the Hon’ble Ministry, stating why we believed it was essential that these technical public safety standards be made available. Many famous professors and engineers in India (including Sam Pitroda!) joined us in that petition.

After the Ministry rejected our petition, we filed a Public Interest Litigation suit in the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi. I was honoured to be joined as a petitioner by Sushant Sinha (who is the creator of the amazing Indian Kanoon site with access to all court opinions) and Srinivas Kodali (who is a transportation engineer and an expert on pressing social/technical issues such as Aadhaar). We are represented by the firm of Nishith Desai Associates and Salman Khurshid in court and we have our oral arguments in the case on May 23.

Q: Should BIS which created these regulations claim copyright? Do they earn revenue from these standards?

A. I don’t care if they claim copyright, just so long as citizens can speak about these laws and inform their fellow citizens! The Bureau earns less than 2 per cent of their total revenue from the sale of Indian Standards and by deliberately keeping a wall around their important work, it hurts public safety and makes education by students and government officials more difficult. There is no reason to charge. These important state documents should be available to all!

Malamud is fascinated by the lives of Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi, the two towering figures who have influenced him greatly. As he himself explains, “I have learned much from reading the writings of Martin Luther King Junior and his advice that we must continually struggle if we wish justice to flow like a mighty stream and from the writings and teachings of Gandhiji, whose satyagraha decolonised the world. Their teachings are all the more relevant today and we should continue to look to their wisdom if we wish to be effective.

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