The open source movement, which has focused on democratising technology access, has over a two-decade history in India. In a conversation moderated by Jacob Koshy , Venkatesh Hariharan (Senior Fellow, IDFC Institute) and Sangeeta Gupta (VP, National Association of Software and Services Companies) discuss its relevance to digital technology, privacy, and software patenting. Edited excerpts:
Open source (OS) has been a part and parcel of software programming and code development for a while. Since the advent of Linux (an OS operating system) in the 1990s, what do you think is the state of the OS movement in India now?
Venkatesh Hariharan: When we started the campaign for more OS in 2000, we had political, cultural and economic reasons to believe it was important. Politically, we wanted to ensure more diversity in the kind of players that existed in the market with twin objectives: that we were independent from a technology standpoint and that software was localised to Indian languages. From a cost perspective, if we were dependent on multinational companies for core technology like operating systems, that would have been a drain on the exchequer. So that was the logic. Today, some of the largest e-governance projects and start-ups in India are running on OS. The early days when we had to campaign for people to use OS is over; now we are in a new era where OS is the new normal.
Sangeeta Gupta: In the initial years, there was a lot of focus on OS versus proprietary. From a NASSCOM perspective, we’ve always believed that while it’s important for us to promote OS, it’s also important to give users a choice: do they want OS or some other proprietary software? I think some government decisions helped propel OS adoption in India. One [reason] why OS was held back in the early years was the lack of capability in fixing technical issues that OS software could bring in versus using proprietary software, which your regular vendor also knew how to fix, such as a Microsoft Office or a Windows. That is what has happened now with the democratisation of technologies, cloud computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI) — OS has become much more mainstream.
Do you think proprietary forms have co-opted OS? Yes, sharing software and tweaking source code happens, but largely have major tech companies monopolised OS?
VH: The commercial support for OS ensures that people can use it in mission-critical applications like the stock exchange or e-government applications. That has played a major role in boosting the adoption of OS. Now, if you look at the amount of code that has been written, in the initial days OS was an imitation of proprietary software or a replacement for it. For instance, Linux as an alternative to NetWare or Unix for Microsoft. The pace of innovation in OS, because of its collaborative nature, outstrips that in proprietary software. So, if you look at the current areas of explosive growth such as Big Data and analytics, the pace of innovation in OS is so rapid that there is no proprietary competitor. We are in an OS 2.0 era where we are no longer catching up with proprietary software; we have leapfrogged. We see the pragmatism of Microsoft joining the open invention network. And now what they are realising is that OS is not a competitor, but maybe an OpenOffice is a competitor to Microsoft Office.
One of the things about OS was that it would democratise code creation and train coders to use basic tools to make commercial products. Do you think the government and the tech industry have done enough to promote OS technologies and introduce them in school and engineering curricula?
SG: Software education in universities in India continues to lag behind. But it’s good to see the All India Council for Technical Education and others introduce new courses on some of the newer technology areas. NASSCOM is trying to do a number of things to upskill software developers and students and bring in the industry-academia connect.
The promise of OS was that programmers everywhere could learn to code and apply them to various contexts. But India has few creators and is mostly a passive consumer of technology. Have barriers imposed by language along with limited access to technical education sharpened the digital divide?
VH: The digital divide has been bridged: the mobile phone is in the hands of an estimated 800 million people today. It’s the first computing device that they have been introduced to. Combine this with the fact that bandwidth has become far cheaper in India. Among the largest YouTube channels are three Indian channels. That has also changed a lot of things in terms of consuming technical content, which is relevant to OS. We also need to work on the mindset of people. We are in an era where people have to continuously update themselves.
SG: When we look at the digital divide, I think the first part of it is about access, where you may have your low-hanging use cases like entertainment. This access has been addressed to a great extent because [content on] the computer was once only in the English language. The computer was expensive and was meant for people who could afford it. I think the ability of the smartphone combined with cheap data has enabled a lot of access for people. I believe, by the use cases, people are starting with entertainment and some other things. There is hope that we will get into more effective usage, whether it’s for healthcare or education. Some of these will be locally built for India. And some of these may be solutions that we will adopt from other markets. But I do believe that many of these entertainment apps have played a role in removing the fear of technology from people’s minds.
There was a time when debates around OS and proprietary used to be around the patenting of software. We’re in the era of AI, machine learning, Internet of Things. But multinationals continue to be the biggest patentees in India. We’ve moved into a post-OS era. Are debates around software patenting even relevant now?
VH: We will continue to see pressure on the Indian government to allow for patenting of software. The law says that software per se is not patentable. But the interpretation of ‘per se’ has been twisted and that game of football has been going on for almost a decade now. The intent of Parliament was that software shouldn’t be patentable. The reason we will continue to see pushback by multinational companies is because these are the largest patent holders anywhere in the world and the balance of power and software patentees is with them. If patents are allowed in India, they will be able to charge royalties from domestic software technology players. There are billions of dollars at stake for this and it is never going to go away unless the Indian government removes the term ‘per se’ from Section 3(k) of the Indian Patent Act.
SG: I agree. But given that we are living in a world still dominated by companies, India needs to invest in building its own intellectual property. And that means we need to have our own patents. We see a number of Indian service companies patenting whatever products or solutions they are building in the U.S. and other key markets. So I don’t see this as an era where patents will not exist; I think patents will become an even more important tool for supremacy or whatever you want to call it in this new technology era.
When these initial debates were happening in the '90s, it was a world of globalisation. But now we have more trade barriers and authoritarianism. So should India get more serious about patenting?
VH: We’re living in an era where data is abundant and I look at the commonality between code and data. The ideals of the OS movement were about collaboration and the shared ownership of knowledge. And within that context, the proliferation of data and the fact that it’s only a few players who are able to monetise that data means that we now need to move to an era where it’s not just a few platforms that benefit from our data, but that individuals are able to leverage and are empowered with their own data. So, in a sense, I see a commonality with the OS movement in that even a college student sitting in Sweden or any other part of the world should be able to write an operating system that can be used in any part of the world. Now, we should be able to build systems where individuals can take control of their data and be in control of how other people monetise it and leverage it for loans, etc.
Privacy, or the lack of it, is the dominant concern around the technology debate. What can the OS movement contribute, beyond activism and legislative participation, to make ordinary Indians more informed about protecting their privacy?
VH: Clearly we need new approaches. What might happen in the next few years is that there will be AI tools which will act as personal data brokers between me and the platform so that I need not surrender my privacy to access book and music recommendations from platforms. Many of these tools will be built on the back of OS. And the other bit of it is that the platforms that are being built in India, like the account aggregator, are built on top of OS. The idea and intent is to give people more control over data.
SG: The data privacy issue requires every creator to build trust. Trust is going to be an important feature for any data-led industry as we move forward. There are two or three different roles that the OS sector could play. One is organisations like the Mozilla Foundation, which is doing a lot of good work in demystifying what privacy notices mean for the average user and how they could make privacy-aware decisions. The second is when you create tools that will help organisations either enhance their compliance on privacy or create an intermediary between me and the organisation that is providing me the tools or software to do that. The third can be about building privacy-maturity discussions or building frameworks. OS has a key role to play.
Do you think legislation will help regulate the scene?
SG: Legislation is important; there is the Data Protection Bill. Our focus at NASSCOM has also been about practices. It should not only be about regulations. Whether you have the right practices that will help comply with these regulations is equally, if not more, important.
VH: The government has two roles. One, lawmakers have to ensure that they pass laws that benefit citizens. And the second is that the government is also one of the largest data controllers apart from platforms. So what kind of governance they have around the data is going to be a really critical part of the data ecosystem in India.
Venkatesh Hariharan is a Senior Fellow at the IDFC Institute; Sangeeta Gupta is Senior Vice President, National Association of Software and Service Companies