An American’s satyagraha to free Indian standards

Make BIS standards open access, says NGO’s appeal in Delhi High Court

Updated - December 03, 2017 11:05 am IST

Published - November 12, 2017 10:20 pm IST - Mumbai

Carl Malamud

Carl Malamud

Carl Malamud has filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court, with the Union of India, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, and the Bureau of Indian Standards [BIS] as respondents, appealing to make the standards ‘freely available to the public at large.’ The case gets its first hearing today.

Mr. Malamud, an American, runs a public free online database of Indian standards, 19,200 of them, through his one-person NGO, Public Resource. He got the standards the only way anyone could: buying copies from the BIS, initially on paper, later on DVD. In 2012, he put them all online. He added value, converting around 9,000 of them into HTML documents, and making 192 of them even more Internet-friendly —  redrawn diagrams in the open SVG format, formulas in the open MathML format — with the intent of eventually doing the same for the rest. The database has been a hit, with millions of views a month.

Then, in 2014, the BIS sent him a renewal notice for his subscription. “I sent them a purchase order with a cover letter saying, by the way, all your standards are here on the Net, I’ve converted 900 into HTML, would you like a copy? And I got this nasty letter from them: ‘We will not sell you any more, you must remove them.’ We politely refused. We petitioned the ministry [of Consumer Affairs], with affidavits from Vint Cerf and Sam Pitroda and others, and they said, no.” That was October the same year.

In December 2015, Public Resource filed its PIL.  His co-petitioners are Sushant Sinha, creator of IndianKanoon, the searchable online database of Indian law, statutes and court judgments, and civil engineer and transportation specialist Srinivas Kodali; they are represented,  pro bono , by high-profile lawyers Salman Khurshid and Nishith Desai.

Public data must be available to the public

The Hindu  met Mr. Malamud and Sam Pitroda, telecommunications pioneer, inventor and entrepreneur, and advisor to Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh during their prime ministerships, in Mumbai, shortly before Mr. Pitroda spoke to an invited gathering of journalists. Mr Malamud and Mr. Pitroda have been travelling together, and are friends and allies in what they see as a mission to get governments the world over to set knowledge free.

Well known for decades of work to make public data — filings to financial exchanges, patents, standards, works created by government employees in the course of duty — available to the public in the USA, Mr. Malamud is also being sued by several non-profits there. (Unlike the BIS, many standards bodies internationally are independent non-profits.)

He makes no money from putting public documents online. But the standards bodies are litigating because they say this cuts into the revenue they make from selling copies. “I disagree,” he says. “Because if you put all the standards online, you can sell certifications, handbooks, training, and so on. Look at the BIS: 2% of their revenue is sales of standards; the bulk is from certifying products. You can’t sell, say, cement in India unless it’s got the certification mark. I believe the government revenues will actually go up.” He says this based in prior experience with data from the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which initially wasn’t happy with his placing data online for free.

His interest in India runs deep. “I’ve always been interested in India,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by the struggle for independence. When Sam gave me the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, I did a very deep dive back into Gandhi again, and I’m fascinated by Nehru and Gokhale and Ranade and all these people who helped form the other big democracy in the world. I love being here. I’ve made a lot of friends. It’s something I’ve invested a lot of time in.”

Safety standards are core in our modern world

When he decided to put the Indian standards online, he says, “I decided it was very important that I wasn’t just some arrogant American coming and saying, I’ve stolen your stuff and I’m putting it online — which is what BIS has accused me of in their various rejoinders — so I started doing a very deep dive into Indian law and history and the genesis of these principles. I’ve been reading literally hundreds of books.” He had told Aneesh Chopra — the USA’s first Chief Technology Officer, during the first half of the Obama presidency — of his plans, and Mr. Chopra advised him to meet Mr. Pitroda. So, just after starting work on the Indian standards in March 2012, he did. Mr. Pitroda was immediately supportive. “He goes, ‘Go! That’s good!’ I said, ‘The BIS is going to be annoyed,’ He said, ‘it doesn’t matter.’”

Mr. Pitroda explains: “Engineering students need these standards, right? How can I ask a poor little student to spend ₹14000 to buy a standard? [That is the cost of the Building Code.] Just because the government says so? The government is wrong! I told him, ‘I will personally take the responsibility, because I would rather fight the battle to make sure that all my students have access to building codes.’ I mean, fire standards: it’s a safety issue, and you want to sell them?”

“Standards, to me, are the most egregious case of the law not being available,” Mr. Malmud says, “Public safety standards are absolute core in our modern world, because it’s technical world. The idea that we are rationing the information about that is just nuts. Even if it weren’t the law, it would be silly to ration it. And the fact that it has legal import… you can’t, in a democracy, not tell people what the law is, because we own the law. Democracies are owned by the people.”

He hopes, that with standards available in bulk, “Some grad student in India will take, say, civil construction standards, and make a vastly better searchable database, put it on an app.”

Civil disobedience

Mr. Malamud’s calls the effort a Gandhian civil disobedience, but with several riders. “I want to very clear. Lives are not at stake directly. I am not facing physical harm. I am not getting beaten up. But access to justice and issues of public safety are important issues. I have been lucky in that people like BIS have not gotten nasty: no criminal charges. But it is satyagraha. A sustained campaign of protest.”

Deep reading of Gandhi informs his methods. “Satyagraha was always for something specific: salt; stamps on an immigration card in South Africa. For me, it’s standards. And you must first petition your rulers; we do that to educate ourselves and educate our rulers. You tell them what should be done. That’s something I had done intuitively, but Gandhi was able to express it. Martin Luther King was always very clear about letting people know what he was going to do. I learnt a lot, not just from the US civils rights movement and India, but the women’s vote in England, the Irish… There have been examples over a long period, of people standing up and attempting to change their government at a fundamental level. How do you do that successfully? There’s been an awful lot of protest —  Occupy, Black Lives Matter — how do you make these movements for change go over the wall and get that change to occur? As opposed to just saying, ‘this is awful, I’m angry.’”

In courts elsewhere

He has several court battles in progress, three at appellate level, one each in Georgia and Washington DC, and the one in the Delhi High Court

One case has been lost, in Germany, but Mr. Malamud says, “Ireland is where the European Court of Justice decision is, and France has a very strong law, in fact they forced their standards body to make the standards available. So I may go back into Europe one more time. But I’d like to do that after we have decisions in India and the US.”

He is optimistic about the India case. “[Standards] are government documents in India, as opposed to the rest of the world, where there are independent standards organisations. India has the strongest right-to-information law in the world; it’s constitutionally based. The Copyright Act says government documents should be available, and more importantly, the RTI is based on the Constitution, and I’m asking that government documents be made public and that the Constitution trumps the Standards Act. We’re not basing our claim on the RTI, we’re basing it on the underlying Constitutional basis the RTI is also based on. I’m hopeful a court will look at that and say, yes, these are the law. And if they are the law, then yes, they must be available. The Delhi High Court has been pretty progressive, [like with] the Delhi University case. I’m very hopeful they will say this is a no-brainer.”

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