A move by the Centre to bring in an intellectual property rights-based regime in e-governance services comes under fire.

A move by the Department of Information Technology to bring in an intellectual property rights-based regime in e-governance services is being opposed by activists who fear the shift will dilute the Right to Information Act.

Right to information (RTI) activists, under the aegis of the National Campaign for People’s Rights to Information (NCPRI), have written to the DIT opposing demands made by industry bodies to allow adoption of multiple and royalty-based technological standards, which will determine access and affordability of future public e-services.

The National Policy on Open Standards for e-governance, being finalised by the DIT, has been stirring heated debate since its second draft version was released in July. In the context of implementing RTI Act (2005), the NCPRI working committee members Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Shekhar Singh, Maja Daruwalla and Venkatesh Nayak, had written that open and free standards are “key to realising the letter and intent of the RTI Act”.

The NCPRI has opposed this demand terming it an “attempt to subvert the intent of the policy.” Appreciating the “progressive” line taken by the original draft policy made public in 2008, the letter states that any move to dilute the open and free nature of these standards, would be antithetical to the spirit of the RTI Act. According to the Act, citizens can have “free and unhindered access to government information and data systems.”

The “industry demand” will only deny long-term accessibility to public documents and information, the letter argues. This will only benefit the licence/patent holders and also create (or retain) monopolies for software products, the NCPRI maintains.

The RTI Act includes, in Section 2(i), the right to access information held in digital form. It also mandates (in Section 4(1)(a) that all records be “computerised within a reasonable time... and connected through a network all over the country on different systems.”

Mr. Nayak told The Hindu that this would impact “pro-active disclosure and free access” both of which lay at the core of the Act. “Today, the Internet is a major vehicle of dissemination of information. Now, if the software used by the government is proprietary then it is likely that access to these services will later migrate to a pay-and-use model. Why should a perfectly good policy be restricted and hindered to cater to the obvious financial interests of corporations?”

Multiple standards

The NCPRI states that multiple standards defeat the objective of providing a common basis for every user. It will also force the citizens to buy software products from different companies to access government data or interact with public service providers. Further, the letter argues, that royalty-based standards are against the RTI Act, which stipulates that information be made available at no cost other than that of photocopying.

In the context of obtaining public information through the Act, multiple and royalty-free standards could be problematic on two counts. The citizen would have to use multiple pieces of software to access government data. Incorporating royalty-based standards would involve costs that might have to be borne by the data user (in this case the RTI applicant).

Keywords: RTI ActNCPRIe-governance