Last weekend, I missed the chance of reminiscing about old times and
Goanet. This was because of a visit to New Delhi just then, spending
two days marooned at the guest house and spacious campus of the IIT.
There was more-than-full access to all that highly-subsidised food
that goes into building our elite team of technologists in these parts
of the world; but there was virtually no access to email for almost
two entire days.
Felt like kicking myself hard not making a decision fast enough, over
that Reliance datacard . It now costs less than five thousand
rupees (just a wee bit less, Reliance style, it’s actually priced at
Rs 4990). This datacard allows you to access the Net via a laptop from
almost any part of India. No worrying about ISPs (internet service
providers) or changing all those complex settings to get online again.
And rates are affordable too. Rs 1500 pm unlimited access to
cyberspace. Speeds are said to be fast too, one is told, both on this
service and on others like Airtel (a bit more costlier; they’re
offering Blackberry in India too, but at quite a stiff price).
If you don’t want an unlimited Reliance account, Rs 400 pm will get
you free 10 pm to 6 am surfing, and the rest of the day at 30 paise a
minute. Little higher than what a fast cybercafe charges, with the
bonus of mobility. Across India (minus remote areas, I guess).
[And no, this isn’t an ad for Reliance… I agree with Samir’s
criticism of their corporate ethic. This is not a company I admire.]
In Delhi, the highlight of the trip was the priviledge of shaking
hands with Jimmy Wales (40), the founder of the Wikipedia.
Just before he rushed off to speak, I asked him  how one brought
together scattered bits of information in one place, on the Wikipedia.
“Yes, a portal would work,” he shot-back. And, like true leaders, he
was honest and encouraging at the same time, “You … just do it…. I
don’t know how it’s done myself,” he added, with a mischevious smile.
At the same conference , there was another of the persons whose
work I had been an admirer of for long. For more about Eben Moglen 
see the Wikipedia… definitions going around in circles, eh?
Like the other Jewish leaders whose ideas and work (and sometimes,
flesh and bones) one encountered — Free Software Foundation leader
Richard M Stallman, Karl Marx and Jesus Christ — Moglen too came
across as very millenarian in perspective. If Christ’s belief in the
inevitablity of changing the status quo actually brought about a
self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately contributed in the collapse
of the Roman Empire, Marx too envisioned the inevitability of the
Revolution. Never mind that he got it wrong about where it would break
out (the affluent world would have nothing to do with it, and have,
ever since Marx’s warnings at least, been too well taken care of to
In turn, Stallman’s own heroic work is making the global Free Software
reality is clearly spurred on by his view of proprietorial software
being sinful, not just extortionately expensive and inconvenient.
Then, there is Moglen’s confidence that the proprietorial software
model simply cannot last.
Doubting Thomases like me can never be sure. But, at the end of the
day, when the history of computing gets adequately and fully written,
we’ll anyway all be very grateful that a few emails actually brought
down someone like Richard Stallman to Goa, and Farmagudi earlier in
this decade. This happened at a time when everyone was forgetting RMS,
the “Linux” and “Open Source” movement were overpowering “GNU” and
“Free Software”, and the media obsfucation of the debate and its
origins were almost wholly complete.
Moglen’s own confidence in the victory of Free Software brought out a
few unsupressable smiles from my Indian-born Chinese-descent
lawyer-friend Lawrence Liang and myself. But we were all in awe of the
fluency with which he spoke about issues involved (the dangers of
software patents, why anything worth copying is worth sharing, the
creation of Copyleft and more).
“He’s been part of the movements which created these ideas,” said
another friend. That probably explained why he could speak so fast,
and so fluently, almost as if he was playing a recording… having me
struggling to take down notes for a change!
It was a great learning experience.
Jimmy Wales had some inspiration for me personally on how
not-for-profit initiatives (though he runs for-profit ones too) in
cyberspace can be run. And how important it is to actually get the
fundamentals right. More than enough food for thought…. including
discovering that he ran a site offering “adult” services in the past
Moglen — a former software hacker at the age of 13 turned professor
of law and history of law at Columbia University who now serves pro
bono as General Counsel for the Free Software Foundation, and is the
Chairman of Software Freedom Law Center — kept mentioning the need
for “having fun” while creating software. Maybe we journos should
equally think of enjoying our supposed-to-be-creative work.
It was also nice to meet very briefly with Mishi Choudhary, a young
lawyer who had emailed me a few times in the past. When she had said
she planned to bring Eben Moglen down to India, I didn’t quite believe
her (but then, never let anyone know of your doubts… you never know
when they pull off something *you* thought impossible).
Not just that, she actually went ahead to found the India branch of
the Software Freedom Law Centre. (This is a network to bail out guys
who try to create quality software and then run into trouble with the
law or with arm-twisting ega-corporations. See what another youngster
from the Free Software movement in India, Anand Babu, now in the US,
achieved in the Fairplay case  The PlayFair project enabled people
to play their purchased iTunes tracks on “non-Apple authorised
hardware, provided an authorised key is available”.).
While in Delhi, Osama Manzar handed over a copy of the book offering
links to prize-winners of the Manthan Awards, for e-content in India.
Many innovative ventures there. Not surprisingly, Goa didn’t even get
a single mention; not even a nomination! Which made me thing: we
probably have a long, long way to go … still. .