Satyagraha in the Digital Age: What can one individual do? 

Internet has provided our generation a unique opportunity to make knowledge free and accessible. The author, thwarted by Governments in US and India, shows us how

Photo by Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Carl Malamud

Our world is in turmoil. Random violence and terror has spread to all corners of the globe, our world is facing a climate catastrophe if we do not act (and we are not acting), income inequality grows wider and hunger and famine continue to spread. What can one individual do when faced with such calamity?

The answer, I submit, lies in the teachings of those who are our leading lights, who fought for decades to right the wrongs they saw in the world. In India and America—the largest and greatest democracies in our modern world—we can look to them. In India, the teachings of Gandhi and Nehru and all the freedom fighters continue to inspire. In the United States, we can look to Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and all the people who fought so long and hard for civil rights.

The key to action for us as individuals is persistence and focus. Persistence means that changing the world has to be more than a short Facebook moment or a tweet. Persistence means that it may take decades to right wrongs, to educate ourselves and educate our leaders. Educating ourselves is what Gandhiji taught his followers in South Africa and in the Congress in India, to focus on ethics, morals, and character. It is a lesson all people who aspire to lead today should absorb.

Focus is also one of the big lessons from Gandhiji and from King in the US. Pick something specific that matters and try to change it. Do something real. Make the goal specific: removal of the salt tax, the right to eat lunch at a counter, the right to attend a school, the right to vote in an election, the elimination of sharecropping.

For a decade, I have focused on one specific goal, enhancing the rule of law. John F Kennedy once said that if we make the means of peaceful revolution impossible, the violent means of revolution are inevitable. In a just society, in a developed democracy, we the people know the rules by which we choose to govern ourselves and we have the capability to change those rules to make our world better.

Why is access to public safety codes restricted ?

In our modern world, there are some special kinds of rules, and those are public safety codes. These technical standards govern how we build safe homes and offices, protecting workers of machinery in factories, how to use pesticides properly, the safety of automobiles, safeguarding the integrity of our streams and oceans, and many more topics. These are some of our most important law.

Throughout the world, with only a few exceptions, public safety codes that have the force of law have been deliberately restricted. In the United States, a series of nongovernmental organisations develop our building and fire codes and they are then enacted into law. Yet, those codes cost hundreds of dollars per copy and, most importantly, copyright is asserted so no person can speak the law without a licence from a private party.

In India, the same thing has happened, but it is the government that restricts distribution of vital public safety information. The Bureau of Indian Standards asserts copyright over these codes, charging an astounding ₹13,760 for a book, the National Building Code of India. The Bureau maintains that these crucial public safety standards are their private property and anybody who wishes to read or speak the content requires a license and must pay a fee. Most importantly, the Bureau maintains that no person may make a more usable version of these codes without their permission, which they will not grant.

I heard that when the government-wide disaster preparation task force met and suggested that all government officials charged with emergency response possess copies of this vital safety code, the Bureau rose to inform the officials that they would only provide this material if each official entered into a licence agreement and paid their ₹ 13,760 fee. No copying would be permitted.

I set out to change this situation a decade ago. The small NGO I head started purchasing safety codes with the force of law from all over the world. In the US, I purchased, scanned, and posted over 1,000 federally mandated safety standards. In India, I purchased all 19,000 India Standards and posted them on the Internet.

We did more than just buy paper copies and scan them. We took many of the key documents and retyped them into modern web pages, redrew all the diagrams, applied modern typography to the text. We coded the standards so people who are visually impaired could more effectively work with the documents. We made the codes available as ebooks, we provided full-text searching, bookmarks, and a secure web site.

Governments in US & India not pleased

The powers that be were not pleased. In the US we have been sued in intensive litigation with 6 plaintiffs and our case for the right to speak the law is now before the US Court of Appeals. In India, the Bureau refused to sell us any more documents and—after a petition for relief to the Ministry was denied—we joined with our colleagues in India in a Public Interest Litigation suit that is currently before the Honorable High Court of Delhi. Our lawyers all donate their time, they are “pro bono,” but they have donated over $10 million in free legal help to defend our work.

While we pursue justice in court, we are also continuing to make these documents available on the Internet to tens of millions of viewers every year. The Indian Standards are particularly popular in the great Indian engineering institutes, where students and professors are delighted to have easy access to crucial standards they need for their education.

Every generation has an opportunity. The Internet has provided our world with a truly great opportunity: universal access to knowledge for all people. I focus on access to edicts of government, the laws of our great democracies, but that is only a small part of the great promise.

We should set our sights higher. In our modern world, there is no excuse to restrict access to scholarly literature, technical documents, the law, or other storehouses of knowledge. As Bhartrhari's Nitisatakam teaches us, “knowledge is a treasure which cannot be stolen.” Knowledge should be free to all regardless of means.

Universal access to knowledge and the rule of law are the way that our world might surmount these seemingly insurmountable obstacles we seem to face today. But, it will only happen if we engage in public work as Gandhi so often told us to do. And, it will only happen if we all focus on specific goals and do so persistently and systematically.

Martin Luther King taught us that change does not come rolling in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes only with continuous struggle. We can change the world, but we must struggle. If we do so, we can walk up that road which gives us all access to knowledge and together reach that shining city on the hill where justice flows like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Carl Malamud is the President of Public.Resource.Org, a US-based nongovernmental organization. Considered a leader of the modern open government movement, Carl was the founder of the first radio station on the Internet and has been responsible for posting on the net hundreds of millions of pages of documents, ranging from the US Securities and Exchange database to the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.

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